TADS Insights

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

1 April 2014


I have a sign near my writing desk at home which simply says “Simplify”. Every time I look at it, I am challenged to continually look for ways of taking the complexity out of what I am doing.  It has helped me enormously, and I would encourage you to look at your own situation and begin to experience the benefits of simplification for yourself.

Simplification is necessary because it is a natural phenomenon that, over time and unchecked, what we do – or fail to do – will eventually fall into a state of chaos.  If you look at any area of your life you will see this to be true.

Take for example the common problem of keeping your garage or basement in some kind of order.  If you’re like me, your beautifully tidy garage will slowly start accumulating all kinds of items (old boxes, electrical goods that don’t work anymore, and things we have put there because we don’t want to store them anywhere else).  And then, one day, you’ll notice how your once pristine garage is in need of a serious clean up.  How did this happen so quickly, you wonder?

The reality is that over time, if left unchecked, all “systems” will fall into a state of disorganisation.  But why?

The science of systems theory, and more specifically an area of study called Cybernetics, provides us with the answer.  According to the science, all systems will adjust, over time, to deal with their changing environment.  These are called “open” systems because they are designed to operate or change how they work, depending on what is going on – they are open to adjustment.

The trouble with open systems is that while they adjust themselves to account for local one-off changes, (“I’ll just leave the broken hedge trimmer in the garage here and deal with it later”), it is these exceptions that, added together, produce a cumulative effect that is greater than the sum of each minor individual exception.   Soon enough, the broken hedge trimmer is accompanied by the empty box from the new trimmer that you have just bought.  And so on.

This explains why, every once and a while, we need to look at the various aspects of our lives or systems and put them through the process of simplification.  Fundamentally, this involves looking at the purpose of the system (in the case of a garage, it’s perhaps to store items of value that we shall use in the future), honestly appraise where we are now, and eliminate or reduce those elements that do not serve their purpose anymore.  It’s getting back to basics.

The reasoning we have followed in the maintenance of our garage can also be applied to every other aspect of your life.  In your work life, for example, is it time to take a review of how you work, who you interact with, and how you spend your hours at work?  You may notice that you have adopted patterns that, while once useful or relevant, may no longer be appropriate.   Take a step back, ask the hard questions, simplify, and get back to the basics of what is truly important.

In most jobs you will notice that there are at most one or two things that are at the core of what you do.   Get these consistently right, and you’ll be doing a good job.  In management theory, these items are called Critical Success Factors (CSF’s), because by respecting these few things, you will greatly influence your ability to succeed.   What are your CSF’s?  Write them down.

I was once involved in a project where we separately asked the CEO and each of the 10 or so people who directly reported to him to write down what they believed to be the CSF’s for their job and also for their organisation as a whole.  The results were shocking – for some it was excellence in marketing, for others it was a focus on engineering or production, and for yet another director it was superb cost management.  Talk about everybody on the team looking towards the same goal post!

According to author Brian Tracy, the very best way to identify your CSF’s is to imagine that you had an unexpected phone call and in 2 hours time, you’ll be going out of town for a month.  Now, where would you put your attention?  You’ll notice that your efforts will be directed at those things that truly matter and likely at things that will have an enduring and significant impact.  It’s a great exercise to help you become a master of simplification.

When you start looking, you’ll see that every dimension of your life – your work, your hobbies, your money, your relationships, and your lifestyle – can be simplified.  Beneath the complexity of life lie deeper and deeper layers of simplicity.    

-- David Keane