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Business book on simplicity as a competitive advantage

Thought leader Lisa Bodell's latest business book Why Simple Wins


Are you drowning in meetings, emails, reports, office rules, and processes?

If so, do we have the best business book for you! 

Firstly, some sobering stats:

Of a 47 hour workweek, the average mid-level manager or frontline employee:

·       Spends 27 hours in meetings with 4 or more people;

·       Spends 11 hours or more on e-mails/electronic communication.

Plus, the more senior the manager = the more that meetings consume your time – up to 40% in some cases.

It’s more than a time suck. Many professionals are frustrated and miserable.

They're busy but nothing is getting done.

And complexity is what’s doing it, says this week's business book author Lisa Bodell, author of Why Simple Wins.

The case for simplicity

We’ve all tried to live simpler lives.

But business author and Future Think CEO Bodell explains the problem:

  • It’s easier to build on top of existing things than to blow up what exists and replace it with something simple.

But it's costly to keep batting on.

The Global Simplicity Index found that complexity destroys a full 10th of company profits every year.

Plus, customers love simplicity:

  • Simplifying the decision-making makes customers 85% more likely to purchase a brand;
  • and 115% more likely to recommend it to others.

Top 5 actions to simplify

So, what’s to be done?

Here's Lisa Bodell's list of Top 5 actions: Awareness, identification, prioritisation, execution, habit formation.

One of Bodell’s executive clients described the process as like being on the TV show Hoarders.

  • “You gotta start by getting rid of some stuff,” she said.

Consultants Bain & Company did a study of one manufacturer that did this with meetings.

The manufacturer halved the default length of meetings to half-an-hour, and mandated that no more than 7 employees attend any company discussion.

Productivity savings were estimated as having the same impact on the company’s bottom line as cutting 200 jobs from the payroll.

The Simplicity Sweet Spot

Something properly simplified is:

·       As minimal as possible. Enough to get the job done, and no more.

·       As understandable as possible. Understood by a novice.

·       As repeatable as possible. Easy to do over and over again.

·       As accessible as possible. Outsiders can make use of them with few gatekeepers.

Example of “fine print” complexity

Bodell says terms and conditions is an area where simplifying is desperately needed.

Her research shows the terms and conditions for PayPal and iTunes have longer word counts than the whole of the Macbeth play by Shakespeare!

More data but not necessarily more value

A curious reason is managers don’t want to look bad.

They’re afraid, says Bodell, so they ask for more data, more reports, more information.

If a solution is too quick or easy, there’s doubt it will actually work.

As the late CEO Jack Welch said, “Insecure managers create complexity. Frightened, nervous managers use thick, convoluted planner books. You can’t believe how….much they fear being simple.” 

So, having courage to be simple is another part of what makes you a good leader in 2021.

Warning signs of complexity

Bodell suggests we cast a look over our companies and look out for the signs.

Telltale signs of a complexity problem include:

·       Too many (or lengthy) approval processes

·      Frustrated customers

·      Co-ordination overload – systems are not compatible

·      Too many rule changes and mystery rules

·     Too many steps to do a simple task

·      An acronym “zoo” – jargon and acronyms abound.

Simple steps to simplicity:

Diagnose the problem, discuss it and brainstorm it, she counsels.


“What can we stop doing immediately?”

“If we can’t eliminate the problem, how can we minimise, reduce, or outsource it?”

“How can we streamline the problem to reach a result quickly?”

Other people’s behaviours

A source of frustration is often other people’s behaviours, says Bodell.

  • Too many meetings, ineffective meetings, urgent requests for redundant reports, mind-numbing presentations, email chains.

We must assume people are doing the best they can.

So what's to blame?

The culprit is often growth. As soon as a company scales, she says, operational processes spiral out of control. Often, there’s no formal opportunity to talk about it with one another.

It all leads to people feeling much of their work is not worthwhile.

“If you get the work right, you get the culture right,” says Bodell.

Leadership and simplicity

Studies show the most successful leaders see themselves as chief simplifiers.

Simplicity won’t just well up naturally from lower in the organisation, Bodell warns. Just like the language you use and even the way you walk into a room, a leadership focus on simplicity will touch everyone and everything in the organisation.

6 leadership characteristics to drive simplicity:

1.     Courage – staying true to your mission of simplicity.

2.     Minimalist sensibility – understanding the value of paring back.

3.     Results orientation – doing more of the work that matters.

4.     Focus – not reflexively latching onto the devil you know.

5.     Personal engagement – exemplify, empower and reinforce behaviours.

6.     Decisiveness – sometimes departing from the need to seek consensus.

Where to start on the road to simplicity

Lisa Bodell suggests your team members write down all their tasks, breaking their work down based on time (frequency or duration): daily, weekly, monthly, annually.

Then she'd begin with giving them a worksheet, answering these questions:

·       What task is most time consuming for you?

·       What task is most time consuming for your colleagues?

·       What is the most complex aspect of your job?

·       What redundant task would you like to remove from your job description?

·       What small task is your biggest time-suck?

·       What task do you wish you could eliminate from your responsibilities today?

Then get them to answer WHY? And HOW TO CHANGE IT? For each answer.

Having all their work laid out in front of them can reveal quick wins to simplify their workload. 

Kill a stupid rule

A crowd favourite with teams, she says, is “Kill a stupid rule” - it's a good, quick fix.

Firstly, identify stupid rules.

Secondly, plot them on a matrix of how hard/easy it is to kill, and if killing it would have a high impact on the business unit.

Thirdly, evaluate and discuss.

Fourth, kill the stupid rule.

12 strategies of chief simplifiers

Chief simplifiers know that reclaiming lost hours and the meaningfulness of work speaks to ethical leadership and frees up more time for innovation.

Set out in Why Simple Wins, these are strategies they employ:

·       Set a vision – paint the picture of a simpler workplace.

·       Weave simplicity into your long-term strategy.

·       Streamline management layers.

·       Simplify decision making – reduce or eliminate the number of people required to approve decisions.

·       Establish clear metrics – where does simplification lead to improved results?

·       Create a “simplification code of conduct’ – make it shameful to choose complication.

·       Build a simplification team – a team to lead the charge.

·       Focus – build a chain of substantive wins.

·       Increase employee engagement – ask employees how they’re going in their efforts.

·       Communicate with clarity.

·       Train the next wave of simplifiers – to “stop being so nice” and speak up when things don’t work.

·       Walk the walk – build simplicity in the way you live and work. Others will follow your lead.

Measure the results

You can measure the number of processes and procedures simplified or removed, the number of forms simplified or removed, or the number of steps simplified or removed.

It’s up to you, but the emotional effects are the most valuable measure. Employees feeling more valued and empowered benefits everyone.

The key is to get started. Focus on a few things, not everything, and dive in and do it.

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