The organizational complication: the #1 irritant of the employee experience

A recent barometer of employee experience showed that many of the subjects mentioned were “soft” subjects, very much oriented towards perception and quality.

But if you do an in-depth study, listen to the employees and get to the bottom of things, you end up digging up other subjects.

The complication of organization: the mother of all friction in businesses

Get to the bottom of things? It couldn’t be simpler. Listening to employees is not complicated, they are the first to know what they are experiencing and even the best able to propose solutions, even if sometimes they lack the “big picture”, because they only see the surface. Dealing with the consequences is better than nothing, but dealing with the root causes is better.

You don’t have to spend insane amounts of time and energy or astronomical amounts of money on consulting to discover them. Just start from what you see on the surface and ask “why?”. Then start again from the why and ask “why?” up to 5 times in a row maximum.

No matter where you start from, you often end up in the same place: the cumbersome structure, organization and processes. Although talking about cumbersomeness is inaccurate. Fighting against heaviness is not complicated: it is “enough” to lighten. The real word is not heaviness but complication, and here the remedy is often more painful: it is necessary to transform, or even to break in order to rebuild.

How to adapt a business to a complex world?

We live in an increasingly complex world and we can’t change it, we can only adapt to it. To adapt, our organizations have responded with complication. Why is that? Because complication gives the illusion that one has control over things.

And before going any further, since complexity is often confused with complication, I will try to explain the difference.

Something complex is made up of different elements, combined in a way that is not immediately understandable. In a complex world there is no pattern, no model that can predict the future by analyzing the past. It is not possible to always arrive at the same result by always doing the same thing, it is not a world where things are replicable. Which twists the proverb according to which the same causes produce the same effects. A complex environment is complex by nature. It is complex because it was born that way, not because it was built that way. In a way, complexity is a natural phenomenon, and humans are not responsible for it.

A complicated thing is made up of a large number of elements and is difficult to understand, to execute. In a complicated world there is a truth even if it is difficult to understand or execute. With a lot of effort one can arrive at an understanding that is right or wrong, at a successful or unsuccessful execution, but to put it simply, one does right or wrong, one knows or one does not know. But as soon as we understand it is always possible to predict things or to reproduce them identically. An environment is not complicated by nature but by construction. It is complicated because it has been built complicated. Complication is the result of human work, and is not natural.

It is difficult for a business to fully adapt to complexity because it is natural, unorganized, and unpredictable. Add to this the illusion that our organizations want to have complete control over their operations. Let us remember that the foundation of the industrial era, of Taylorism, was to “replicate perfection ad infinitum”. This produced management and organizational models that worked very well for a time but no longer work in today’s world, in a knowledge-based economy and a complex world.

The problem is in the head, as it often is. Accept that absolute control and replicability are no longer possible today. Of course we can build systems that work towards this goal, but they don’t work. But since we can’t give up the desire for control, we are going in circles.

Sorry for this rather long aside but I find it essential to understand the real ills of our organizations.

The fact-proven complication

So whether we are talking about lack of productivity or efficiency, recruitment processes that are not very effective or that candidates give up along the way, insufficient satisfaction or well being, unsuitable training systems, lack of responsiveness or proactivity, disengagement, slowness in decision-making or even inability to decide, loss of purpose, inefficiency of managers who do not do their job, time wasted in unnecessary meetings… all these phenomena basically have the same root cause.

As a reminder of some figures already shared in the past:

  •  In 1955, businesses had between 4 and 7 performance imperatives. They have between 25 and 50 today.
  • 15 to 50% of the related indicators are competing, what was not the case in 1955.
  • In the most complicated organizations, managers spend more than 40% of their time writing reports and from 30 to 60% in coordination meetings.
  • In the most complicated organization, staff spend 40 to 80% of their time wasting it. Not because they do nothing but because what they do is not productive.
  • Over the last 15 years, the number of interface and coordination structures, of control processes grew by 50 to 350%
  • There is no relationship between the size of a business and its complicatedness. One can be big and simple or small and complicated.

I would also like to quote this recent interview of Yves Morieux (in French):

The matrix promotes cooperation within the company and this is indispensable in an increasingly complex economy. But most companies don’t know how to make it work. Too often the matrix is added to a hierarchical structure. It adds complication to complexity. The best indicator of this trend is the flourishing of committees of all kinds so that the hierarchy can respond to new problems as they arise.”

But this so-called “agility” is counterproductive when it is misunderstood and misplaced. The “project mode” that allows a limited team to complete an initiative in a shortened timeframe often adds to the existing organization and therefore to the hierarchy. Beyond that, the emergence of new technologies that were supposed to increase productivity causes, on the contrary, embolisms by automating complexity.

“The company must give more autonomy to its managers and therefore leave more room for quality, subjectivity, judgment and common sense. We have to accept vagueness, or even praise it – even in maths, the fuzzy logic has made progress possible!

There’s no need to add more, you all have examples from your daily lives that corroborate all this.

A Response to Complexity? Simplification!

Humans can respond to complexity effectively without complicating things. It’s just a matter of vision change, paradigm shift.

It is impossible to build an organization that responds 100% to a complex world. By definition, this would mean that it would be totally out of control, which is not possible. If abuse of control is the cancer of our organizations, lack of control is just as dangerous. What is needed is to find the right balance.

A few possibilities:

  • Rethinking the organization and processes not because of power issues but according to their purpose, the needs of customers and the employees who serve them.
  • Adding nothing if you don’t take something away in return.
  • Focus on subsidiarity: solve each problem at the closest hierarchical level without unnecessary escalation.
  • Collaborate, especially across silos, precisely in order to avoid escalating problems and to more easily solve problems that are inherently complex.
  • Really question what the role of managers should be (at all levels of management) and redefine their mission accordingly (without forgetting to formalize it).
  • No more superimposing models (matrix/hierarchy/projects).
  • Make management and leadership work at the same speed as the field.
  • Simplify and integrate the tools and the information system which are generally only the reflection of a complicated organization.
  • Cultivate letting go.

Simplification: the first building block of the employee experience

Of course if you have decided to embark on a process of experience employed with a “soft” vision of the subject by telling yourself that the challenge was to “take care” of the employee in the strict sense of the term you may have just fallen out of the closet and plan to change jobs as soon as possible.

However here we see the impact on the employee experience, but this bad employee experience has a cost for the organization: efficiency, productivity, commitment, reactivity, customer experience… All the frictions that employees experience have a cost for the company, a cost that can easily be calculated in hard cash. Here the employee experience is only the thermometer that lets you know that you are functionally ill. Logical, because it is the employees who make the company work.

Second, you can refuse to tackle the root cause and focus on its manifestations, the surface effects. It’s doable, that’s the way it’s been done for 50 years. And it will happen what always happens (the advantage of complicated organizations, as we have seen, is that the same causes produce the same effects, so it is easy to predict what happens there). Your initiatives will fail or will only be partially implemented or will only last for a short time: the time when you will be there to carry them at arm’s length. And what will be the cause? As we have seen in the barometer mentioned above and in any study that concerns change: you will blame the lack of involvement of the management, the management, and the heaviness of the organization. QED

By first simplifying the organization you :

  • Create the conditions for the success of your other initiatives.
  • Make your other initiatives sustainable by avoiding that the organization rejects them in the long run.
  • And even if you do nothing else you create an immediate gain in experience (individual) and performance (individual and collective)

Photo : organisation compliquée by Cartoon Resource via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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