For my birthday earlier this month, my sister in law gave me a perfectly spherical clear glass vase. It’s beautiful. So beautiful I cried when I opened it. Something about its utter simplicity – the spare lines, its fragility, the way it holds space and light – moved me to tears. I filled it with deep indigo anemones and put it on my desk where I could stare at it – drinking the light and the colour and the space it occupies in the air
Perhaps it was its stark contrast to the way the rest of my life feels. I live in a riot of clutter currently. Our living space overrun with piles of paper and textbooks and felt-tip pens after months of homeschooling, piles of laundry, half-done DIY projects intended to make lockdown feel better but aborted because no-one has time. Passive-aggressive post-it note reminders everywhere.
My brain too, is a cluttered jumble sale. Lists of things to do – work, kids, health, home, family and friends, community – lists of wishes, lists of guilts. Everything feels crammed and airless, and as a result it’s hard to think clearly and move effectively.
If the previous chapter in my book – the one on Understanding – is one I would like to rewrite in the light of all I’ve learned this past year, this chapter – the one on Simplicity – is the one I wish I had had the foresight to print off a pile of a year ago, highlight with one of the forty-seven neon pens I’ve got lying around, and press into the sanitised hand of every leader to help them navigate the chaos that was about to surround them.
It’s a cri de couer for simplicity. Simplicity of message, simplicity of information, simplicity in structure, in decision-making, and in getting stuff done. Simplicity in rules and, perhaps above all, simplicity of expectation.
Let’s be clear. Simplicity doesn’t mean simplisitic-icity. Simplicity is not naïve. It’s not some muppet with a mallet and no time for nuance. It’s not that it doesn’t understand that things are complicated, and it’s not that it denies complexity. True simplicity has walked through fire time after time until it has burned away all the extraneous noise and nonsense and is left with what really matters.
Organisations and leaders that can bring simplicity are giving their people the gift of enabling them to focus on what truly matters, and the gift of freedom from being entangled in clutter.
So, what does simplicity look like?
Simplicity of message looks like purpose, told and retold with commitment and consistency and passion, and with a clever choice of language that sticks and guides decision making – Read the guest. Put us out of business with your generosity. Fail fast, fail often. Etc. Don’t be forever amending and refining and caveating and theorizing. Just – bam. Say what you want to say and then stop.
Simplicity of information means building a strong narrative, sticking to it, and contextualizing everything that way. Don’t inundate people with facts and require them to do the work of sifting for relevance and contextualizing – chances are the narrative they’ll construct (and they will construct one – sense-making is what our brains do, that’s why it’s so exhausting) won’t be the one you wanted.
Simplicity in structure requires us to strike a balance between enough structure to contain the organisation – like a web – and an embracing of the informal and dense and effective networks that people form anyway, irrespective of formal structures. It’s a mindset – it’s about being willing to operate on the edge of chaos and embracing the idea that leaders are there to empower rather than control. Less command and control, more murmuration.
Simplicity of decision making comes with habit. It requires you to centre what matters most, and then to walk the path time after time that best gets you there. With smaller decisions this is easy, with more complex ones you will need to line more factors up, and so you will need true diversity of perspective around a table and a process that ensures all voices are heard. What you definitely don’t need are more systems or rules. It will take courage and persistence to keep walking this path, especially when other paths initially look more well worn than this new one.
Simplicity in execution requires trusting people to get on with it, backing decision-makers instead of second guessing them, and focusing on outcomes above process.
Simplicity in rules means having only the ones you need! Duh. And there’s the rub. Rules protect us and bring clarity, and they support fairness and consistency and transparency. But it’s easy to slip into using rules to control chaos, and that won’t work. If you’re spending more time worrying about preventing missteps than you are in reaching for excellence, then there’s a good chance you have too many rules. Set the essential parameters, and then prioritise trust, and clarity of purpose as the best means to stay on track.
Simplicity in expectation is purpose plus wabi sabi – the brilliant Japanese aesthetic of finding beauty in a thing’s flaws. Pursue your purpose with integrity and to the best of your ability and then have mercy on yourself and on your teams. We are none of us perfect, and we are in an infinite game. The expectation that we should be creating in our people is around intention and direction of travel.
What does it take to lead with simplicity?
All of the above may sound great – may sound, in fact, like simplicity itself, like motherhood and apple pie. But why is it so hard to achieve in practice? Why does the default seem to be that we get ourselves all snarled up? It requires a bit of intentionality and aforethought, is the thing.
If you want to tell a compelling story as a leader, you need to practice. Practice until you’re bored and your jaw aches, work the language, observe what fires your belly, and what you see other people react to, refine as you go.
If you want to be able to trust and empower your people, you need to know them well, understand how they operate and be in a deep and powerful relationship with them. That takes a considerable investment of our time and energy, but is much more rewarding and fun and productive than laying down governance and process obstacles.
And lastly, if you want to focus on outcomes, intention and direction of travel, and be able to hold your nerve and trust people, you need calmness and acuity. You can’t discern the heart of the thing if every muscle is tensed.
Try holding two glass tumblers at arm’s length, one empty one full. Balance them in the palms of your hands. Feel the difference in weight between the two. Now try gripping them instead, and squeeze all the muscles in your arms. It’s much harder to feel the difference in weight, isn’t it?
That’s what it’s like trying to tap into discernment, intuition and what really matters when you’re in full go-go-go pre-frontal cortex mode. You need to step away from the clutter. Get enough sleep, take a walk, meditate, read a poem, hug your kids – and then trust yourself to feel the weight of the thing. A tumbler of water. A glass vase full of anemones. The simple things.