- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (December 8, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1422181146
- ISBN-13: 978-1422181140
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #328,076 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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.
Others have their reasons for praising this book. Here are three of mine. First, Ashkenas follows Einstein's admonition (quoted in the title of this review) by explaining how to complete the immensely difficult transition to what Oliver Wendell Holmes once characterized as "the other side of complexity." For example, he provides Assessment 1-1 (Pages 21-25) so that his reader can complete a self-audit by which to determine the major sources of complexity in her or his organization. He also identifies the four sources of complexity (i.e. structure, products, processes, and management behavior) and the major complexity-traps and explains how to avoid or escape from them.
I also admire how skillfully Ashkenas inserts statements throughout his narrative from those who have extensive first-hand experience with simplicity initiatives. For example, here is what a former vice chairman of GE, Floyd Trotter, has to say about the thought process that can be built into an entire culture. "We teach managers that they need to start with the `answer,' which is that their business needs double-digit earnings improvement every quarter and every year. They quickly realize that sales growth without leverage won't do it. So they have to figure out how to drive growth while increasing productivity. We don't complicate it: Material comes in the front door and products go out the back door. We have to get rid of any waste in the middle while also figuring out how to have the products or services be more valuable for our customers."
Finally, I appreciate Ashkenas' brilliant use of specificity rather than merely recycling aphorisms, bromides, and prescriptions. In Table 7-1, he provides a Roadmap for simplicity" that specifies the causes of complexity and the approaches for increasing simplicity in four separate but interdependent areas: structural mitosis, product proliferation, process, evolution, and managerial behavior.
For individuals as well as for organizations, getting to "the other side of complexity" is a continuous process rather than achieving an ultimate objective. Ashkenas clearly agrees with Thomas Edison who once observed, "Vision without execution is hallucination." For those who are results-driven, cutting through complexity never ends. Fortunately, he offers to them an abundance of insights, observations, and suggestions that can immediately be put to use.
I presume to conclude with two suggestions of my own: First, concentrate on complexity that causes the most serious problems. When doing so, practice ruthless elimination of whatever is wasteful, redundant, obsolete, or irrelevant.
Congratulations to Ron Ashkenas on a brilliant achievement. Bravo!