5 Ways Big Companies Can Simplify Their Business Practices

Most companies start as a simple, smart idea—but going back to that is easier said than done.

Growth has a way of breeding complexity in business. Whether it happens overnight or over time, through mergers and acquisitions, a proliferation of products, increasing regulatory oversight or surges in staff and sales, many of the world’s biggest companies find themselves paying a heavy price for complexity.

They know they have to simplify, but as big as they are, with as many resources as they have at their disposal, they freely admit they don’t know where to start.

We’ve got five simple ways to begin.

1. Start with your customers

Everything you do should make it easier for customers to understand what you do and how to do business with you. That goes straight to communications and to your products as well.

Consider this. What’s it like to be one of your customers? What’s it like to try to buy one of your products, to get information about them or use them? Those are three distinct experiences, and they all need to be addressed.

Whether you’re a B2B or a B2C, whether you employ 2,000 or 2 million people, whether your product is digital or electronic, insurance or software, the customer experience comes first; and the simpler their experience, the better. Assess every touchpoint in the customer journey and pressure test every pre-conceived notion about what customers value and what they don’t.

2. Elevate the mission

Engage the entire organization. It’s critical that everyone knows and agrees that simplification is a company priority so barriers between different groups are eliminated. Simplification won’t thrive in a silo.

One of the greatest barriers to simplification is getting different groups in a company to work together, leaving behind competing interests so they can effectively change the way they do business, simplify products and experiences, and achieve results quickly. Those barriers are real, but they aren’t insurmountable.

Engage your employees in your vision and make them an integral part of it. When employees understand their individual roles in your business, it’s much easier to cut through complexities. Try focusing on a small number of extraordinary initiatives using small teams with clearly defined responsibilities.

3. Examine everything

Getting to the heart of simplicity is a top-down and bottom-up exercise. Have a plan. Be empathetic, fearless, and uncompromising in your approach. Whether it’s in your communications or your engagement process, take a hard look at what’s truly essential and start to pare away everything else.

Last year, the BBC publicly launched a company-wide program to “Give red tape the red card” in an effort to minimize its bureaucratic overkill and “make the BBC a simpler place.” Applying simplicity tests and acting on many months of internal review that tapped into a “new wave of ideas from staff,” the public service broadcaster set a goal of identifying “60 fixes in six months” across key operational systems and processes to create a tangibly simpler working environment.

Simplicity is cultivated through empowerment, which is why it's so important to invite and encourage input from all levels.

4. Streamline, Clarify, Define

Start with your purpose. Once everyone is clear on why you do what you do, as well as how you do it, everything becomes a lot simpler. Google’s purpose, for example, is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and helpful.” Nike’s is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” And at Walmart, they “save people money so they can live better.”

A simple purpose streamlines communications, clarifies intent both internally and externally, and helps define your path, your products, and your place in the market. The key is to not lose sight of that purpose.

5. Protect nothing

Creative leadership and bold actions are a must if your company is going to manage complexity. Sacred cows get in the way. Watch out for incremental change and the temptation to amend and extend. That invariably leads to more complexity, not less.

IBM’s “Capitalizing on Complexity” study—based on face-to-face conversations with more than 1,500 chief executive officers around the world—brought the issue into high relief not long ago. “CEOs now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics,” the report stated, adding, “Standout CEOs expressed little fear of re-examining their own creations or proven strategic approaches.”

In other words, to be truly simple, more often than not, you need the courage to start with a blank page.

Howard Belk is the co-CEO and chief creative officer at Siegel+Gale, a global strategic branding firm. Follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user COLORED PENCIL magazine]

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