You are what you do, not what or whom you control.

When we encounter something complex, our natural urge is usually to break it down and simplify things. However, the way we build and govern our large organizations is quite counterintuitive – we add layers of complexity over a structure that is already complex by nature. And, we wind up with labyrinthine bureaucracies that are not just difficult to navigate and manage, but also cumbersome and unproductive.

It’s quite common to see employees in such organizations underperforming because they spend much of their energies working around the bureaucratic red tape, rather than on achieving goals and results. Oftentimes, accountability is left arbitrary and there’s no clarity on why something needs to be approved by multiple people, multiple times, for the same outcome. The troves of information generated through reporting mechanisms reveal nothing; redundant systems and tools slow down processes, and the whole organization suffers from burnout and loss in morale.

So, there’s no doubt that complexity is an important business challenge and that we need to simplify our organizations and the processes that prop them up. In fact, most managers acknowledge the negative effect organizational complexity has on people’s productivity and work satisfaction. Besides, there’s enough data to show that complex control mechanisms tend to drive up costs, reduce profit margins and thwart growth.

But simply agreeing upon it isn’t enough – there needs to be a sustained effort towards simplification. Keeping things simple isn’t easy – it needs strong strategy and vigilance to keep complexity at bay. And, it all begins with first acknowledging the problems and taking baby steps towards resolving them.

HOW to simplify your organisation?

Change the way you approve requests: When a request is initiated, it can either be approved or rejected. Check the history of all requests and classify them according to rejection rates. If a request has a history of zero rejections, then it’s quite obvious that everyone in the workflow has done everything correctly. In other words, there has never been a reason to reject that request. So automatically approve such requests instead of expecting them to move through the entire approval loop every time they’re initiated.  

Review rejections and rectify issues: Once you’re comfortable with automatically approving requests with a history of zero rejections, upgrade to requests with a minimal amount of rejections – say, five percent. Review these rejected requests, understand the reasons behind those rejections and see if they can be rectified through better communication, education and awareness creation. Explore what needs to be done to convert them into workflows with zero rejections.

Create strong reporting mechanisms: Replace conventional controls with a strong emphasis on reporting. Encourage people to record their requests in detail so that the management still has a cumulative view of requests initiated and approved (or rejected). They can then drill this data to investigate cases that seem fishy take action accordingly. In other words, strong reports help companies manage by exception – so that only problematic cases are scrutinized, while the rest of the cases aren’t backed up by unnecessary bureaucracy.  

Leverage the backend: Build controls into the backend of systems and tools, used to initiate and approve requests, to save time and speed up things. For example, if the company has deals with certain airlines for tickets and employees are expected to travel only on those airlines, then build the backend of the ticketing system to reflect that. Feature only those airlines as choices in the system. This avoids the need for review and approval, speeds up the entire process and reduces workload.

Impose what is mandatory without choice: There are certain processes that need to be done mandatorily – like installing the latest version of the software on all company computers and laptops. This ensures that the company’s network of computers have the latest security upgrades installed and aren’t exposed to external threats. However, it’s very rare to see 100 percent compliance from all employees in such things because, given the option, people postpone installing upgrades when they’re busy and then forget all about them. In such cases, create backend controls that offer two or three warnings before forcibly shutting down the system to install upgrades. If some computers are expected to be left out from this upgrade process for valid reasons such as long leaves, working from client locations for an extended period etc, it makes sense to build a reporting logic around it and handle them separately. It’s better than the Operations team publishing a report that includes all users and offers stock answers for the lower than 100% compliance. 

Integrate processes and tools to reduce redundancy: Review your different business processes and systems for redundancy and explore if they can be integrated to make things simpler for your people. For example, employees in IT organizations compulsorily need a workspace, access to business emailing systems with IDs, a laptop or computer, telephone access codes to make business calls and so on. If it’s a large organization, then different departments like HR, IT, Facilities etc. are responsible for provisioning these requirements to new hires. Each of these departments has their own requisition and approval processes that new hires or their managers need to go through. Only then will a new hire become fully equipped to begin working in full swing. Now, these large IT organizations typically have rapid growth and high employee turnover rates. In such an environment, it can be quite frustrating for new hires as well as their managers to go through these processes over and over again. An easy solution could be for different departments to come together, treat the problem as an organization-level business problem and integrate processes and systems to deliver a more streamlined onboarding experience for new hires.

Balance removal of control with common sense: Thanks to the deep emphasis on work-life balance, many companies allow employees to take a day off whenever they need to – as long as they are drawing from their own kitty of earned days off. However, it’s important to balance such freedom with common sense. For example, all employees should be asked to name a backup person when they take a day off and that backup person should be sent a notification too. This ensures that nobody is caught unawares and there aren’t any gaps.

Trust begets more trust: Any proposal for change is bound to be met with some resistance, particularly from the management which fears their loss of control. However, such control is illusory in nature and it makes the company drag its feet. When you remove the need for unnecessary approvals; weed out redundancies and integrate tools to simplify complicated processes, people are bound to reciprocate responsibly and act with common sense.

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