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Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done Hardcover – December 8, 2009
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Peter Drucker said that "Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective."
I don't know if those quotes inspired Ron Ashkenas, the author of Simply Effective, but they could have. If you're looking for ways to understand unnecessary complexity in your business and root it out, you should read this book.
The key to the value of this book is clearly stated in the Preface: The author says that the tools he refers to will probably be familiar to you. Then he says this:
"My intent is not to rehash these tools, but rather to put them in the context of how they can be used either singly or in combination to tackle different aspects of complexity--or to be woven together into a more comprehensive strategy."
What makes this a great book is the simple structure. It provides a lens you can use to spot and analyze needless or destructive complexity. And it provides guidance on what to do next.
The book begins with an introductory chapter titled: "Unmasking organizational complexity." Ashkenas says something that many of us have thought: "much of the day-to-day complexity that bogs down our ability to get results is self-inflicted." Pogo could not have said it better.
The introductory chapter describes how we create complexity without ever meaning to do so. It also describes the competitive advantage available to companies who can cauterize the complexity that degrades performance.
Ashkenas identifies four causes of complexity. Each one gets its own chapter. Each chapter describes particular causes of complexity and then discusses ways to increase simplicity.
There is a chapter on what he calls "Structural Mitosis." I would have loved a different title but there's no doubt that overly complex structures of various kinds are institutional roadblocks.
The following chapter is about "Product Proliferation." You'll discover all the kinds of complexity that come from too many products, each added for a perfectly good reason. The author doesn't say it, but this is an excellent example of how complexity can grow exponentially.
Next is a chapter on "Process Evolution" and how it often migrates to the complex. Just like with products, every complexity-increasing change happens for what appears to be a good reason.
The final core chapter is about managerial behaviors, the enemy who is us. The title is "Curbing Complexity Causing Behaviors." Unless you are vastly different from the managers I know and work with and vastly different from me, you will mutter to yourself as you spot things that you've done that made life more difficult, not easier.
The book's last two chapters are about putting things together. One is "Strategy for Simplicity" which is about how to put the tools together in a corporate environment. The other is "Simplicity Starts with You," about things you can do.
Ashkenas shares lots of examples in the book from his consulting work. Since he works with large companies, those are the examples. If you're in a smaller company or not-for-profit, you will have to do some adapting to your own situation. But because the author has done such a good job of providing structure, that should be easy.
Bottom line: If you want to gain the competitive advantage that comes from identifying, cauterizing and preventing unnecessary complexity in your company, buy this book and move it to the top of your reading list.
He identifies 4 major causes of complexity:
1. Structural Mitosis - constant change in the way organizations are structured
2. Management Behaviour - which wastes time and which confuses the issues
3. Product & Service Proliferation - which makes focusing and thus managing the whole ever more difficult
4. Process Evolution - as businesses use new and varying approaches to solve problems - processes need streamlining
By his own admission, Ashkenas does not set out to create lots of new tools. Rather, he is focused on ensuring that we have the context for simplicity clearly understood so that we start to create effective response strategies - and then applying the most proven approaches to help get results. The book is liberally laced with good case studies, from GE, Conagra, Cisco, J&J and others. And at the end of each chapter there is a helpful checklist of actions that can be taken.
For example, in the chapter on "Product and Service Proliferation", Ashkenas encourages us to use effective Portfolio Analysis to identify where to focus, rationalise our brand SKU's, and use Customer Design Partnering to be sure we are meeting the most important needs. And in "Streamlining Processes", Ashkenas urges us to use Best Practice, Process Mapping (to make explicit what is implicit or taken for granted in an organization) and, of course, proven techniques such as Six Sigma and Lean. You've also got to smile when you read about "Death by PowerPoint" when he is discussing ineffective Management behaviour.
Stepping back, Ashkenas proposes a "Simple Strategy for Simplicity", in a five step loop.
* Declare Simplicity a Business Imperative
* Restructure the work and consequent organization structure to reduce complexity
* Achieve early results ("quick wins") through process and product simplification
* Sustain Momentum through clear and constant Communication
* Repeat over time
This is a good, clear and helpful book, and the action plans suggested will definitely start to clear away the organizational clutter that we all face every day.
If I have a critique it is that Ashkenas could have gone further in two areas. First, to make even more of the power of Customer Insight in driving better business decisions and thus helping to design more effective processes. Using a "customer lens" can really break through some of the old paradigms. I have especially seen this applied in retailing, where getting the entire enterprise focused on and rewarded by customer results can be a breakthrough strategy and a clear focus for operational excellence.
And, secondly, Ashkenas only deals lightly with the emerging knowledge we have on how Social Networks create highly efficient and effective communication vehicles. He is not alone in this, as most writers still follow the "Structure follows Strategy" dictum. Yet network science is beginning to suggest common approaches that can be used independently of the actual purpose of the Enterprise.
Still, that is for future books. For today, I can fully recommend "Simply Effective" as a well-researched, well-written book packed with helpful ideas for action. A quick read, but a useful handbook to have on your desk to dip into as your work progresses.