(Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom)
Being able to simplify something complicated is not easy or intuitive.
In an overly complex world, simplifying our personal and professional lives is fast becoming a foundational value that cannot be ignored. Just look around: Companies that simplify our lives are thriving.
Unstable complexity is the enemy
I have a friend, Rod Graber, who owned a $2 million hospice business in Denver. He decided to put simple to the test, allowing for the complex and elegant to arise from starting over with something simple.
Now, the hospice business is difficult. Rod had to deal with plenty of regulations as well as the human dynamics between patients, families and caregivers during some of the most stressful times in their lives. Over the first 10 years of creating his business, Rod’s company quickly reached $2 million in revenue, only to stall there for almost 8 years.
He was stuck.
As we watched our dogs tirelessly play tug-of-war one day, Rod lamented his company’s lackluster revenue performance as well as the weighty complexity of his business. He reflected how encumbered everything had become as his small executive team created policies, procedures and a thick employee handbook. Some of the complexity was a built-in response to government regulation, and some was an attempt to control the unpredictable relationships between staff, patients and families.
We had both recently read and been inspired by the same book – “This Explains Everything: 150 Deep, Beautiful and Elegant Theories of How the World Works” – and we both marveled at the power of simplicity. In the book, we also learned about Gall’s Law.
Named for John Gall, who wrote about systems engineering, Gall’s Law states that a working, complex system derives from a simple working system.
You cannot start with complexity or your endeavor is doomed. But starting with simple requires a purposeful approach.
Rod wanted to help people grow and learn, not to have them follow rules. That was his simple starting point. With good intentions, the rules in his company were put in place to manage complexity, but they often seemed to fall short or entangle people and decisions in unintended consequences, stifling growth.
As our dogs continued to snarl, growl and yank at their work, Rod went inside without a word. Minutes later, he returned with a 2-inch thick notebook. Glancing through, I could tell it was his nemesis: His company’s policy manual.
He opened the binder and, page by page, pulled out every policy, procedure and sample form. He ripped each one in half, crazed with inspiration to start over with simple.
A few weeks later, we were again watching our dogs play their never-ending game. This time, Rod pulled out one page with one sentence on it, proudly explaining, “This is my new employee handbook. Everyone has to live by it, and no one will ever be able to forget what it is, what page to look at or which part of this manual is more important. My new modus operandi is simple: If you don’t know, just ask.”
This one rule did a lot over a few years.
It created a natural, flat and interconnected hierarchy based on competence, not titles. There was an ease of asking “up the chain” that was not bogged down by hierarchical decision-making.
It created a culture of intellectual curiosity where questions were encouraged, not thought of as someone “getting into your mix” or “not knowing their job.” His team developed the courage to help and challenge each other. They were always in conversation and learning mode.
Hi culture became excessively open and transparent. There was no fear of retribution for not knowing; not knowing was actually expected. Asking questions forced conversation, learning, and improvement – something every business wants.
Rod’s staff gelled with a newfound commitment to the business and each other. First, the staff had much more ownership over the services provided to patients and families. They formed more intense respect for what their peers knew and what it meant to foster continuous improvement together. Unforced, they also became more accountable to teaching each other, helping peers find answers and apply new ideas.
Fast forward five years and Rod’s company grew five-fold to $10 million a year in revenue. His instinct to start over with simple was right. He had pondered for 2 weeks how to simplify his overly complex company, and he bet heavily on his answer: If you don’t know, just ask. And he succeeded.
This simple rule created an entirely new environment and culture for his staff and his customers. It also earned his company a spot as a top place to work in all of Colorado.
Getting rid of the 2-inch thick policy book allowed him to stress one thing from which very complex human behaviors and interactions could thrive.
We sat on his porch and watched the dogs tug – again – five years later. We realized it, too, was something simple, and it produced great joy for all of us for many, many years.
Find somewhere to start with simple. You won’t be disappointed.