Simplicity versus Complexity

The debate between “simplicity and complexity” is ongoing.Some organizations have tried on “simplicity” like it was a suit they wear for special events. But until “simplicity” becomes part of an organization’s DNA, organizations drift back and forth between the two.The tendency of most organizations is to make complex systems. And the bigger we get, the more complex we get. It’s much easier to add to our systems instead of replacing outdated systems.

Criss Jami says:“the roles of a genius is not to complicate the simple but to simplify the complicated.

It’s a catch 22 for most us, because most leaders who are good at creating systems are those who like details and they tend to drift into the too complicated ditch. Leaders who value simple are not always great at creating systems. I think it important for a leader to know their strengths and weaknesses. Leaders need to invite those who have different strengths to the table, in order to keep things moving and simple. We need to learn to ask the right questions.

Einstein said this about simplicity:“I am not a genius, I am just curious.I ask many questions and when the answer is simple, then God is answering”.

That is so true. God most often shows up in the simple answers. I actually read books and listen to podcasts looking for a simple solution to a problem I am trying to solve. Many times I actually will go into a book store and ask the Holy Spirit to direct me to a book to read that will give me the answer that I am looking for. You will only find the answers you are looking for if you ask the right questions.

Avoiding Complexity

Busy people live complicated lives by choice.It seems like the more things people are focused on, the fewer they remember.Take mission statements for instance.Complicated mission statements often get lost in the whirlwind of day to day operations. But creating a simple culture code or mission statement is vital, because what is memorable is portable. The problem with a simple mission statement or culture statement is that it is never complete. This can drive a lot of leaders crazy so to make the statement complete they add to it and come up with a long drawn out statement. But long drawn out statements aren’t memorable and so they are mostly ineffective for the teams. You have to be okay as a leader to have a simple statement worded in such a way that it triggers a team of people to move together in the same direction.

An example of a great simple statement is Bono, from U2. He made a mission statement for his One Campaign that read “to make poverty history.” It’s simple. It’s portable. It’s memorable. And his team can run with it. But, it is incomplete. He doesn’t say where he wants to make poverty history, or how. But it doesn’t need to be complete. The team will figure that out, but his people come to work everyday knowing exactly what they are there to do…they are going to work to make poverty history.

Identify the Choke Points

In Ken Segall’s book Insanely Simple he writes that “when process is king, ideas never will be”!So when a leader or an organization gets carried away with the details of a process, ideas, probably some really good ones,fall by the way side.  So how can a company or a church recognize when their processes are killing their best ideas or are no longer working? When the movement stops.

A company or a church needs to create movement of people from the community into their organization. If there are no new customers, then there is a systems problem. If you have an influx of new customers, or visitors in your church, but they don’t comeback, then you have a systems problem. Good systems create movement to greater levels of commitment to churches or companies. If they’ve become too complex for your “customers” they will hesitate in moving forward or will be frustrated and stop moving to a higher level of commitment. You will need to simplify to make it easier for them to move forward.

Steve Jobs once said“the best way to screw up a project is to give it too much time."Too much time causes projects to stagnate.This sounds simple and is a valuable “best practice”, but an organization’s efforts to simplify a time frame can actually complicate the process. It is a very fine line and one that differs project to project and team to team. The best way to determine whether you are walking the line properly is to judge the movement — again good systems create movement — if we take too long, movement will slow and stagnate. If we move too quickly movement isn’t sustainable. I’ve found it is better to move too quickly than too slowly because we can always make improvements along the way more easily than trying to get something moving in the first place.

Clearly Communicate

Day to day life seems to get more and more complicated. Good communication is vital. In written communication, simple may be too simple if it does not include the appropriate measure of clarity.But when clarity is lavished with too many details, simplicity is compromised for clarity’s sake.

For example; during our services I speak for 18 minutes.  In order to keep it simple and yet filled with the appropriate measure of clarity I have a very predicable system or formula to prepare my messages to ensure the best measure of clarity. I first try to present a problem that needs to be solved in my life or in the life of my listeners — this is the introduction. I try to be as clear as possible in defining the problem. Then I reveal that same problem in the Bible and how God or someone in the Bible solved that problem. Once we see a clear problem and a clear solution, then we see a clear path as to what to do about it in our lives. It is also important to note that I give a one-point message and not a 3 or 5 point message. This also adds to the clarity, I believe. This is just a very quick overview of the system I use to communicate.  But each week I work incredibly hard to bring as much clarity to the subject and to my teachings as I possibly can. 

Steve Jobs said in a Newsweek interview that “when we first start problem solving, the first solutions seem very complex and we tend to stop there. But if we keep going”, he says, “and peel the onion, we will arrive at elegant and simple solutions.

I think he is absolutely right. Another example is the process we went through in developing our discipleship program here at the church. It took us over 3 years of trial and error until we found a simple enough process for our people to see and understand. As I look back on it, our first presentation was close, but it didn’t net the results we expected.  Without results, it lacked movement. While it was clear to us as leaders, it wasn’t grasped in the same way by our people. So we refined and about three years into it we found the fit and it was much simpler in its process as well as in its language and that made all of the difference!

Having discussions face to face aren't always available and you need to rely on technology to communicate. Which seems to have both helped and hurt the crusade for simplicity.  Choosing the right technical advantages can simplify the complexity of running a large organization. With the goal to create movement I have experimented with a lot of different technological systems in the attempt to erase complexity and create a simplistic movement of information.  So I have used technology like:

  • Google Docs or Dropbox for reporting and sharing of information with our staff and volunteer leaders.

  • Slack for interoffice communications. It’s an app that allows you to communicate in house with one person at a time or with an entire team at once.

  • Planning Centre for all of our scheduling, volunteer management, kid check-in and creative programming. I think every church should use Planning Centre. If you aren’t you are severely missing out. It is simple and effective.

But again, we are continually analyzing our systems to ensure they are creating effective movement, including our communication systems.

Continually Refine

Over time, traditional “best practices” in an organization usually erode the original intentions of “simplicity”. People become “raving fans” of their past. These best practices can become sacred to organizations even to the point that once an organization “simplifies” their best practices, former best practices become the default.  Companies automatically drift back to the complexity of their yesterdays.

As leaders we need to really be clear as to what the difference is between our organization’s vision and it’s best practices or methods. A lot of times these two things are so similar that most people mistake the methods for the vision. If a leader is clear on the vision and the "why of the organization" with the rest of the organization they will give him permission to mess with the practices and methods of the organization. If he does not make it clear, then trying to change a best practice, even if it is no longer the best practice, becomes incredibly difficult.

Additionally, when an organization starts growing the temptation then is to add systems to accommodate the growth.

A great example of this would be our faith. Religion is complex.Faith is simple.The truth is, God’s intended relationship with man was complicated by the traditions of men but Jesus stepped in and simplified it. God’s desire and vision was to create a path for men and women to enter into an eternal relationship with him. He did a masterful job of making an incredibly complex system simple by His plan of sending Jesus as our Saviour. What Jesus did for us makes it incredibly easy to move from being lost to being found. It’s so simple in fact that we often believe it’s too simple and too good to be true so we add our own ideas and theologies to it. When we do, it makes it complex and difficult for people to come to Christ. The lesson for us churches is found in Acts 15:19 which instructs us not to make it difficult for anyone who is coming to Christ. In other words, don’t mess with God’s system!

When it comes to best practices and quickly growing organizations, adding systems often appear to be the quick fix. The problem is if you just 'add a system’ instead of 'replacing a system', you increase complexity and with complexity growth stops.

The key is to always focus on being simple. One thing I always ask our staff is “What could we eliminate that no one would miss?” This allows us to keep our attention focused on keeping it simple. We’ve simplified our service programming into predictable segments by asking that question. As a result, our services appear at My Victory Church to be almost effortless to the casual observer but they are complex.   That's the beauty of great systems. They make something complex seem simple.

But once those systems are working for a while it is easy for us as leaders to be bored and either slip into comfortable routines or push to add or change something which is not always wise and will just add confusion to those you are trying to lead. When we become so intoxicated with “simple and best practices” we run the risk of slipping into routines and getting too comfortable within the system that we let it work for itself without any fresh or creative input. We have to stay attentive and creative without complicating the best practices. It's really a fine line and it is best walked by keeping your ear to the ground, listening to all involved in the systems - both the staff implementing it and your customers being served by it.

The other ditch to slipping into complacency is the temptation to cut corners in an effort to keep it simple or create change. The truth is that simple ideas are not necessarily better ideas if they compromise quality. It’s important to not compromise quality when building a simple system. What I have found is that to build a really effective, simple system it takes a lot more thought and planning to erase the complexities and to keep it simple. A lot of times the temptation for us leaders is to cut corners to save time in building a system. When we do this we sacrifice quality. We have to always partner our culture code of “We make it better” with “We keep it simple.”

Measure Everything

Simplicity has to be more than a favourite suit we wear at problem-solving meetings.  we need to sow the seeds of simplicity and fight the war against complexity without becoming “mechanical” problem-solvers. Begin sowing seeds of simplicity by measuring everything.

When you measure everything you will begin to see where you are seeing successful movement and where you are stalled out. Then study what the differences are between the areas that are growing and the areas that are not. Study the effective systems as well as the ineffective ones. Now implement a plan to replace the ineffective systems with more effective ones. But I’d recommend only working on one system at a time so that it can get your full attention and so that you can see it through.

Tips to Keeping Your Systems Simple:

  1. Identify the Choke Points

  2. Clearly Communicate

  3. Continually Refine

  4. Measure Everything

Clare Boothe Luce is credited with originally saying “Simplicity is the ultimate efficiency”.There is a difference between effective and efficient. Efficiency allows us to wisely use our efforts and resources for maximum results. That’s means it must be simple because too complex is too costly in both time and dollars. Effective is good, but efficient is better. 

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