Bringing Simplicity to a Complex World – No Easy Task

Simplicity is a great virtue, but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse: complexity sells better.

I could not agree more with this quote from the Dutch essayist and pioneer in computing science, Edsger Dijkstra – famous for his works on algorithms from the ‘60s to the ‘80s. For the 30+ years I have been working in the IT industry, I have witnessed that with every new hype comes the promise of a complexity killer whereas, in fact, the new trend often creates more data silos to handle, at least for a transition period.

The recent example is cloud computing, whose scalable pay-per-use model can bring real flexibility advantages to users, while also generating infrastructure chaos if there is no integrated multi-cloud management solution to bring consistency between private clouds, public clouds and on-premise datacenters. 93% of companies will use more than one cloud. They need a unifying partner to help them manage this complexity – connecting teams and processes across different platforms. Dell Technologies offers services, solutions and infrastructure to achieve consistency in a multi-cloud world and eliminate obstacles.

As a CFO, I consider it part of my mission to fight unnecessary complexity, whenever I can. I share this opinion by Jim Bell, a former CFO turned CEO, that complexity is the enemy of agility and that some level of automation (through selected RPA technologies, for instance) can help make things like planning and forecasting simpler in an age where companies are more and more data-driven.

Now, how do you take all the noise away and make sure you focus on tools and data that really bring some return on investment to the business?

  1. I think the first milestone on the road to simplicity is to create and apply metrics that integrate user-friendliness when trying to calculate productivity gains yielded by a piece of software or an app. Dare to question (pilot) users on the time they need to make their way through the solution. How simple do they find it? Do they confirm the efficiency gains that the sales rep convinced you of? Do they see room for improvements that would make their lives much easier?
  2. Secondly, when rolling out a new solution, set the right framework around the project. By ‘right’, I mean a steering committee, for instance, that has the authority to take (drastic) corrective action without delay. Concretely, make sure you have a good balance in that decision body between ‘subject matter experts’ and ‘outsiders’ so that you have different points of view on what is complex or not. In any case, you need mavericks that will challenge the projects on the simplicity/user-friendliness side. The profile of the ‘maverick’ will depend on the type of project. For instance, in a very process-driven accounting project, it is interesting to have someone with a creative personality to track the ease of use of the project, in combination with more system-driven types of person.
  3. My third tip is to learn and share lessons from every IT project so that each project is a step forward on an improvement path towards greater efficiency. For instance, every year in January, I put ‘simplifying the complex’ on my list of priorities to discuss with the team, based on what we learnt from the past year.
  4. Last but not least, I think fighting complexity often comes down to changing (bad) habits – we have always worked that way so it is probably the most efficient. I am convinced that simplicity starts with the right mindset – an ability to challenge things and be open to change. Why should we keep on with complex processes if there are simpler alternatives? It is a mindset that should be encouraged in the workplace, certainly towards newcomers that do not have a biased view yet.

In a recent podcast on the evolution of the CFO, McKinsey consultants refer to the finance function and the CFO as a talent factory which needs to flex different muscles to attract, retain and drive talent going forward. I am convinced that the ability to bring more clarity in things that tend to be messy is one of these key muscles.

Are you too? Do not hesitate to share comments or experiences on how you fight complexity in your work environment.