When Less Is More

The recession seems to be accelerating a drive toward simplicity. Many are realizing that complexity is inefficient and expensive. As a result, people are streamlining their lives, both personally and professionally. I know I am—and so is our company.

two simple gears fitting together

We are currently focused on eliminating complexity in four areas:

  1. The number of meetings. We should be very careful about setting up routine meetings. Once they are in place, they are hard to eliminate—they seem to take on a life of their own. Every once in a while (perhaps annually) it is good to re-evaluate every standing meeting and ask five questions:
    • “What is the intended outcome of this meeting?”
    • “Are all the people who attend this meeting really necessary to achieve this outcome?
    • “Can we meet less frequently and still achieve this outcome?”
    • “Can we meet for a shorter period of time and still achieve this outcome?”
    • “Is there some way to accomplish this outcome without a regular meeting?”
  2. The size of our teams. If the meeting is informational, then a large group may be appropriate. But if you are trying to make decisions, a large group can quickly become cumbersome.

    For starters, it is a challenge to get everyone together. Some assistants spend much of their time just trying to coordinate schedules. In addition, it is more difficult to get everyone aligned in a large team. You simply have more opinions and concerns that have to be “folded in” to the conversation.

    Instead, you can assemble a small team quickly, make decisions faster, and then communicate the outcomes to those who need to know. If you need to create alignment around a decision, you can also do this in subsequent smaller meetings. At Thomas Nelson, we have just reduced the size of our Executive Leadership Team from nine to three. I think this is going to dramatically speed up our decision-making process.

  3. The value of our processes. No organization can survive without clearly defined and well-executed procedures. But, like meetings, these can sometimes take on a life of their own. Things that may have been necessary two years ago may not be necessary now. The whole world, it seems, has changed.

    Nothing makes an organization seem bureaucratic more than processes that have outlived their usefulness. So often, we create system-wide procedures in response to a single exception or anomaly. We would be far better off to address the exception head-on rather than create a process than penalizes everyone else.

  4. The use of acronyms. And acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of other words. They are designed to be a shortcut that saves everyone time. For example, it is easier to refer to “NASA” rather than the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” These work best when they result in a pronounceable word.

    However, in many organizations, including my own, they can actually have the opposite effect. They can add complexity and become a barrier to understanding. For example, when someone says, “The ELT is insisting that the SPU leaders take these projects back to the MSS for further consideration” you know you have a problem. They can make communication less efficient and more unintelligible to outsiders.

In the current environment, we can’t afford complexity. We need to be fast and nimble to remain viable and indeed grow. Anything that gets in the way of that, needs to be challenged.

Question: What else needs to be challenged in your organization to make it less complex and more efficient?
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  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    What else needs to be challenged? I think busyness needs to be challenged. Far too often people seem to be responding to rather than creating. Making time to think and create versus just responding and doing the same old thing is important in my opinion.

    With regard to streamlining… Twitter is the perfect analogy. 140 characters or less. The speed of technology and change are forcing us all to adapt in new and innovative ways. No more business (or life) as usual. Constant evaluation and reevaluation are necessary to stay effective and efficient. I think times like these (economy, etc) are good in the long run. Forces us all to trim the fat that we’ve become so accustom to rely on. Forces us to confront areas of complacency and act.

    Kudos to Nelson and your team for make what appears to be proactive moves.

  • http://www.yourgreatestfan.com Tim DeTellis

    Great post – it's not the big that eat the small, but the fast that eat the slow. If your organization has road blocks to effectiveness in place, break them down. For us, bottle necks of "getting things done" is our favorite road block to break. How can we execute faster? What or who is holding us back? Let's charge on!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/SpenceSmith SpenceSmith

    Great Post…. I totally agree with this especially if where you work has a lot of employees. Makes me think of Death By Meeting…

    Where I work, we are the kings of the Acronym! So much so that it has become a great joke when anyone starts to speak the language… We seem to all go into that scene in Good Morning Vietnam:)

  • Bud Boughton

    Interestingly as I read this blog, it sounds like your publishing company has issues that could be aligned with almost any company, but especially those in the technology industry. My question is, if less is more (which I believe it is) and that is truly what we are striving for, why do I now get 70-100 e-mails a day not to mention how many text messages and tweets? Does anyone ever think to talk to somone else instead of just communicating electronically? Could it be that even though we are more 'wired' today as a society we have also become the worst communicators in the history of mankind?

  • http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com/ Susan Cushman

    Great post, Michael. It's been years since I worked in a big corporation, But I wish Federal Express had your wisdom at the time. I was a freelance writer, independently contracted to edit an employee manual explaining the change-over to a new hand-held tracker to be used by delivery folks. I would work on the manual for a week, then go to a meeting with about a dozen people from engineering, sales, legal, etc., and listen to them argue over the verbiage in the manual. I'd take notes, go back to work for another week, and bring it back to yet another meeting. When I quit after about six weeks, they were still arguing.

    Now I'm my own "boss," writing at home. But I find that 2 of your principles apply to my life: Number of meetings? I'm in 2 writing critique groups, one adoptive mother support group, 2 church groups. I'm seeing the need to curtail some of this. The value of our processes? I'm a big list-maker and resolution setter, and your words have encouraged me to let go of the ones that aren't helping me move forward, without feeling like I've "failed."

  • http://www.marlataviano.com Marla Taviano

    I love simple.

  • http://www.productivemagazine.com Michael Sliwinski

    Processes – I've just came back from the GTD Summit and it inspired me to finish new processes for the Productive Magazine to make sure I don't get each issue out after months… but on a monthly basis instead.

    It was a great fun to actually design these processes and now it's even more fun implementig it. Let's see how it goes.

    Same thing applies to my Nzobe development.

    I use Mindmapping tools to design processes and brainstorm ideas how to make things simpler and where to automate stuff.

  • http://CarryingDaily.blogspot.com Martin Richardson

    Great post, in one of my industries(HR), certain forms need to be challenged. If they're leaving a big paper-trail and can't be updated and stored via technology like others we use, should we use them? They create excess work and are wasteful.

    As far as groups go for meetings, I couldn't agree with you more; so many times is it unnecessary to have everyone present. Why make someone more involved in something they don't need to be in when they could be focusing on and achieving something else for the organization? Opportunity cost.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/paulmerrill paulmerrill

    Thomas Nelson is leading the way, Michael. Your leadership is evident in posts like this.

    Keep up the good work and the being a good example for others!

  • http://josephmcole.wordpress.com Joseph_Cole

    As a pastor of a small, rural church, we need to streamline what we believe success looks like in order to move forward.

    As ministry leaders, we tend to hold on to things like schedules and places as indicators of our success (e.g. We meet every Thursday at Frank's house.). As long as we have a place and time we have had success.

    This creates confusion for me, as I struggle to evaluate our effectiveness. I am given ambiguous reports on the happenings of the congregation and am at a loss as to what to do afterward.

    I believe our streamlining must occur in these abstract concepts such as this more so than physical and time resources. We don't have very much of physical resources, programs and meetings to streamline. So, we're probably fortunate in that sense.

  • http://spudlets.wordpress.com Marc V

    Looks like the pendulum is swinging the other way. A few years back there was a strong push to "empower" employees and have bottom-up managing. Accomplishing this meant extra meetings with all employees, forming subcommittees, having heads of subcommittees meet with upper management, more meetings to explain policies, additional meetings to air out grievances against the new policies, etc.

    I'll be curious to see how long it takes the pendulum to swing back. The complaints will start when some important decision is made from a meeting of only three people that affects hundreds, but yet they didn't get MY opinion on it, by golly.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/PattiM PattiM

    Great post as always. I especially like #3 the value of the process. I tend to cut to the chase on issues and try to see the big picture before changing a process for an one off exception. Drives me nuts spending time debating the one off instead of thinking outside the box to move the group forward. I've threatened to make the whole group stand through those debates just to shorten them.

  • http://www.godmessedmeup.blogspot.com Pam Hogeweide

    small is so totally the new sexy.

    love your site. thanks so much for making readily available your wisdom and insight from years of experience. generosity with knowledge is also the new sexy. facebook and twitter are manifestations of humankind's longing to build our collective wisdom and knowledge. blogs, social networking, youtube, and google, all indicators of how our thirst for knowledge is as basic as our thirst for food and shelter.

    i'm subscribing today! and i'll find you on twitter……….

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