Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Simpler Way to Make It Simple - Michael Schrage - Harvard Business Review, MIchael Schrage

A Simpler Way to Make It Simple - Michael Schrage - Harvard Business Review

Before rolling out an enterprise innovation, Tesco (the UK's supremely innovative supermarketer) insists that it must meet three conditions.

The first is that innovation must in some way be better for customers; second is that it should ultimately prove cheaper for Tesco; and, finally, the innovation must make things simpler for staff.

While doing work with the company a decade ago, I quickly found Tesco's innovators had little trouble arguing their proposals would be better for customers and successfully take costs out of the firm. That was the easy part. What killed roughly half of Tesco's innovation ideas was the stubborn challenge of simpler for staff. Innovation champions are great at selling visionary benefits and kneading numbers just so. But supermarket employees are skeptical that innovation will actually make their everyday working lives simpler. They don't take simple for granted. They want demonstrable proof. So does Tesco. Simple is hard. Show me — don't tell me —. It's simple.

The most important thing I learned wasn't how the supermarket giant made innovations simpler to understand and use. Tesco's secret sauce for innovation simplification was, appropriately, astonishingly simple: the company made people — and held people — accountable for simplicity.

This may seem astonishingly obvious. It's not. I've gone into scores of organizations, conferences and exec ed programs and asked senior-level line managers and executives alike a very simple question: How many of you have a "VP of simpler-for-staff" or someone who "owns" innovation simplification within the enterprise?

Usually, there's murmuring and nervous laughter. Occasionally, a hand goes up. Most of the time, that person says that "training" is responsible for making sure people find the innovation simpler and easier to use. That answer reveals one of the pernicious pathologies afflicting so many organizations. Precisely because people know there's an organizational training department, they don't take extra efforts to take out the complications and complexities of their innovation. In the same way Hollywood productions say "We'll fix it in post (production)" to compensate for a bad shot or bad acting, internal innovators and change champions shrug and say, "They'll fix it in training and orientation." Training's very existence is used as an excuse not to further simplify. What's more, the training department is happy to go along with the clunky complexity because that makes them more important. Training can argue, correctly, that nobody could effectively use the innovation if they hadn't been fully trained. Instead of addressing the simplicity/complexity challenge, training effectively perpetuates it. Talk about perverse incentives.

Sometimes the person who raises a hand says their organization has a human factors or usability group that determines "simpler for staff." Two follow-up questions later and we discover that, usually, these groups don't "own" ease-of-use, they simply evaluate it. The group is more "innovation editor and auditor" than partner in designing simplicity into systems. That's better than nothing, but this group is not held accountable for simplicity's absence or the business consequences of that absence.

Of course, a rare hand or two is attached to someone whose company takes the Tesco ethos seriously. One CIO at an executive retreat told the crowd he had completely redesigned his company's IT department systems deployments and upgrades around "ease of use" and "speed of adoption." Users are brought into the interface and process design developments much earlier. The most effective change he implemented? Program managers had to survey affected employees to see if the new systems were "easier" to use than the existing ones. The systems didn't just have to work well, on time, and on budget — they had to work more easily for their users. If not, certain compensation was forfeit. You could hear the eyebrows arch.

You will not be surprised to learn that more people went to talk to this CIO than to me after my workshop session.

Simplicity is best facilitated by accountability. Improved simplicity is a byproduct of improved accountability. Don't allow a disconnect. The real reason organizations see so many complicated and kludgy process innovations is not because their people are stupid or lazy — or even because these improvements are inherently difficult — it's the absence of clarity around accountability. For any given innovation initiative, if it's not clear who "owns" simplicity, you can be confident no one does.

Accountability means that someone has sat down with the process owner or appropriate business team leaders and asked, "What does 'simple for staff' mean and how do we measure it?"

Pick whatever measures of effectiveness you like — time, number of steps, rework, etc. — but doesn't "simpler for staff" deserve respect comparable to "better for customers" and "cheaper for the firm"? After all, those get measured.

With its three simple innovation heuristics, Tesco ostensibly forbids the shortcuts and cheats that allow perfectly good proposals to get "improved" into a morass of complex features and functionality. The essential simplicity is hiding there somewhere, but it will take hours of your employee's times to find it. That's not good management. That's bad design.

So let's put it this way: If you're not making things simpler for staff, the odds are you're making things more difficult for staff. That's a bad place to be.

Who should be held accountable for that?

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