Simplicity: A leaders’ new perspective


Simplicity in management is dictated by the complexity theory which asserts that there is order in chaos, in that if we leave a system alone it will eventually get self-organized. The same stands for organizations. People are complex entities as individuals, and consequently even more complex as groups. So, leading people requires a simple management system. Leaders should set the main directions and the goals or the overall vision, and then leave the system alone to organize itself.

I believe we have all felt that we are more efficient if we do not have our supervisors breathing down our necks. Our thinking is more clear and creative, as well as effective, and our performance increases along with that joyful feeling of creation.

However, we don’t promote anarchy, but we foster freedom of action within a predetermined context. We decide the “what” (we want) and leave the “how” (to do it) to our people. If they are clear about their mission they will not go astray. Of course, they must be willing and capable of undertaking such responsibility. We, as leaders, must then stand by them and provide them with direction if they encounter any problems. They must feel our support in every step they make.

But, be cautious.! Simplicity is not an easy approach, it takes careful planning to be effective. Moreover, leaders must utilize their inner thinking in order to associate information, ideas, and experience towards a systemic planning which is always open to change and development. To do that they must constantly develop their knowledge and skills, and be informed about management, social, and technological advances. They must develop their learning capacity, and extensively study human behaviour and its impact on performance. Finally they must have a holistic perspective of the world which is constantly under review and examination.

The second ramification of simplicity theory is how we evaluate our people. There are many evaluation tools assessing various constructs, such as personality, leadership style, behaviour etc., at the individual and the team level, either using subjective or objective measures. Most of them however are sophisticated tools developed over many years of research and empirical study, rendering them overcomplicated. They measure multiple dimensions of a concept by using complicated statistical analyses.

Although those tools have a sound theoretical base and extensive empirical justification, it seems they cannot capture the whole range of human complexity. They sometimes fail to account for the variation of what they are meant to evaluate. I am not suggesting to abolish them, just not to fully rely on them when trying to transform our people. Humans are so complex that we need to use our also complex intuition in order to assess their progress after an intervention. Statistics are not capable (yet) of representing people’s functioning. People can be counted in numbers, but cannot be explained by numbers.

When assessing your people: think simple, use simple measurements or/and construe sophisticated evaluation tools in a simple way. Use measurements as a starting point to commence a transformational discussion. Your people’s progress, development, and actual performance will then be apparent in their everyday behaviours/actions, not within worksheet cells full of numbers. Evaluation tools are great for setting the context, and providing direction. After that you should mostly rely on your observations about progress and overall contribution to the organization. Tools just come to your aid. Remember that you cannot evaluate a complex system, such as humans, by using an also complex evaluation system.

Antonis Gavalas, MSc