Partnering, Integrating, To Make the Complex Simple

In the recent top rated book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World , Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt offer that, “When many parties must work together, simple trumps complex” (p. 44). This is a beautiful fit for the future of work, a future made up of complex work, performed in complex ways. Freelancers, contractors, and global project work, all intermingle with traditional organizational forms. Rather than try and understand all the complexities yourself, partner with those who do -- and do it in a simple way. By simple in this instance I mean push decision-making to where the information is, close to the work itself.

Complex Work and Partnerships Require Simple Rules and Direct Connections to Feedback

This is such a strong idea that Sull and Eisenhardt use it as the conclusion of their book:

..simple rules work because they provide a threshold level of structure while leaving ample scope to exercise discretion....

Close to the facts on the ground, individuals can draw on their judgment and creativity to manage risks and seize unexpected opportunities. The latitude to exercise discretion not only makes simple rules effective, it makes them attractive. People [and organizations, my addition here, but also covered in the book] thrive when given the opportunity to apply their judgment and creativity to the situations they face from day to day. And if they benefit from simple rules, they are more likely to use them and use them well" (p. 228).

The “threshold level of structure” is what keeps the ground-level decision making from just being tactical. Key is that the structure is understood and committed to across all actors. Nilofer Merchant talks about the value of co-creating strategy so that the vision and the tactics are tied across all levels of the work from inception. Co-creation can support commitment and innovation. Sull and Eisenhardt provide detailed notes on the value of working throughout the organization as rules are created -- and are clear that strategy and execution cannot be separated.

The Future of Work Is Complex, But the Underlying Technologies Can Help

Internet enabled collaboration, product development supported by real-time data, The Internet of Things. These all mean we spend more time and effort checking and connecting with data and others throughout our days, and nights. The process is not simple, but it could be simpler. Some organizations have found ways to leverage the complexity of data in ways that simplify the work.

Pulse Mining Systems

Pulse Mining Systems provides integrated business management tools to mining companies. (I’m looking forward to writing a more historical piece remarking on how much mining has taught us about management.) They offer resources for operations, human resources, marketing, and more. The key is that they don’t do it alone -- and their tools aren’t meant just for executives or data scientists.

I spoke with Rob Parvin, then their visualization and analytics manager. I was looking for an example of the value of offering access to operational data to people doing the work, but I found much more. Yes, he described examples where mines with five kilometer conveyors are progressing from manual reporting to real time, sensor-based, feedback to the shift managers. Yes, maintenance and staffing decisions are made with better data. (More on those soon.) But what surprised me was how they were creating these opportunities.

Pulse Partners to Co-Innovate

Pulse partners to simplify both their strategic decision making and how they then take action on that strategy. They co-innovate -- work with their strategic clients -- to identify the specific information needed by the client for decision making (going for simple rather than complex), key metrics, and prototyping. The product is eventually rolled out as a general offering -- but with the knowledge that it’s a tool that’s valuable in the industry and works. The implicit rule is that products are co-developed rather than created away from the work itself. They’ve been able to create early versions in as little as three weeks.

Pulse is able to move this quickly because they’ve partnered with two analytics companies rather than trying to build out their own capabilities (implicit rule: Don’t reinvent the wheel). They work with Birst (see an earlier mention here) and Tableau to provide analytics and visualization building blocks that are rapidly prototyped and tested in the field. The complexity is managed by focusing on pre-built, reusable capabilities. The partners are bound by a common interest in answering operational questions.

In prior posts I’ve written about how we can lead by letting go (of old school management techniques), but that creates an image of chaos for some. Instead, let’s think about a structured handoff of responsibility. We are unlikely expert in all the areas where we need expertise. Pulse has found like-minded partners. SAP has done the same with their co-innovation labs. Each seems to have developed simple rules of organization to handoff pieces of the innovation process to partners with appropriate skills.

My Own Simple Rules

Rereading Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, and considering the issues in the context of our quickly changing work environment, has inspired me to think about my own simple rules. I work with a variety of audiences interested in designing organizations for innovation and offer a process for creating designs unique to their settings (I’m in full agreement that the local creation of the rules is an important piece of the process). That said, I think there are a few rules many can work with and I share them here in hope that you will help me improve them.

  • Base decisions on data, with decision makers as close to the work as possible.

  • Build teams with diverse skills, but common interests - highlight the interest.

  • Bundle similar work, and where possible, pass off to automation.

  • Be transparent and pay attention to what others are sharing with you.

Sull and Eisenhardt use the second half of their book to discuss how to refine and improve your rules. The above are just a start for me, are they also an interesting start for you?