“Make it as simple as possible…but no simpler.” Albert Einstein
Ron Ashkenas is one of my intellectual heroes. I have read, reviewed, and highly-admire his countless HBR articles as well as his previous books, notably The Boundaryless Organization, The GE Work-Out, and Rapid Results, and thus was eager to read his latest which, he explains, “is meant as a resource for managers, consultants, and others who want to engage in [an] ongoing and never-ending quest [to] engage their colleagues in an ongoing dialogue about the sources of complexity and their implications, and experiment with different approaches until they figure out what works”…or at least what will probably work for them and their organization.
Others have their reasons for praising this book. Here are three of mine. First, Ashkenas follows Einstein’s admonition (quoted in the title of this review) by explaining how to complete the immensely difficult transition to what Oliver Wendell Holmes once characterized as “the other side of complexity.” For example, he provides Assessment 1-1 (Pages 21-25) so that his reader can complete a self-audit by which to determine the major sources of complexity in her or his organization. He also identifies the four sources of complexity (i.e. structure, products, processes, and management behavior) and the major complexity-traps and explains how to avoid or escape from them.
I also admire how skillfully Ashkenas inserts statements throughout his narrative from those who have extensive first-hand experience with simplicity initiatives. For example, here is what a former vice chairman of GE, Floyd Trotter, has to say about the thought process that can be built into an entire culture. “We teach managers that they need to start with the `answer,’ which is that their business needs double-digit earnings improvement every quarter and every year. They quickly realize that sales growth without leverage won’t do it. So they have to figure out how to drive growth while increasing productivity. We don’t complicate it: Material comes in the front door and products go out the back door. We have to get rid of any waste in the middle while also figuring out how to have the products or services be more valuable for our customers.”
Finally, I appreciate Ashkenas’ brilliant use of specificity rather than merely recycling aphorisms, bromides, and prescriptions. In Table 7-1, he provides a “Roadmap for simplicity” that specifies the causes of complexity and the approaches for increasing simplicity in four separate but interdependent areas: structural mitosis, product proliferation, process, evolution, and managerial behavior.
For individuals as well as for organizations, getting to “the other side of complexity” is a continuous process rather than achieving an ultimate objective. Ashkenas clearly agrees with Thomas Edison who once observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” For those who are results-driven, cutting through complexity never ends. Fortunately, he offers to them an abundance of insights, observations, and suggestions that can immediately be put to use.
I presume to conclude with two suggestions of my own: First, concentrate primarily on complexity that causes the most serious problems. When doing so, practice ruthless elimination of whatever is wasteful, redundant, obsolete, and/or irrelevant.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Ron Ashkenas for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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How well do you ask questions?
From my experience, most managers don’t think about this issue. After all, you don’t usually find “the ability to ask questions” on any list of managerial competencies; nor is it an explicit part of the curriculum of business schools or executive education programs. But asking questions effectively is a major underlying part of a manager’s job — which suggests that it might be worth giving this skill a little more focus.
We’ve all experienced times when we’ve failed at being good questioners, perhaps without realizing it. For example, not long ago I sat in on a meeting where a project team was reviewing its progress with a senior executive sponsor. During the presentation it was clear from his body language that the executive was uncomfortable with the direction that the team was taking. As a result, without any realquestioning of the team, he deferred approval of the next steps until he could have a further discussion with the team leader. When he met with the team leader later, he ripped into him for allowing the team to go off-course. Eventually the team leader was able to explain the thinking behind the plan, convinced the executive that they would indeed achieve their objectives, and was given the go-ahead to proceed. But in the meantime the team had lost its momentum (and a week of productivity), and began to focus more on pleasing the sponsor rather than doing the project in the best way.
This is not an isolated incident. Many managers don’t know how to probe the thought process of their subordinates, colleagues, and bosses — and instead make assumptions about the basis of their actions. And when those assumptions are wrong, all sorts of dysfunctional patterns can be created. In a financial services firm, for example, a major product upgrade was delayed by months because the product and IT managers had different assumptions about what was to be delivered by when, and kept blaming each other for delays. When a third party finally helped them to ask the right questions, they were able to come up with a plan that satisfied both, and quickly produced incremental revenue for the product.
There are three areas where improved “questioning” can strengthen managerial effectiveness; and it might be worth considering how you can improve your skills in each one.
First is the ability to ask questions about yourself. All of us fall into unproductive habits, sometimes unconsciously. Good managers therefore are always asking themselves and others about what they could do better or differently. Finding the right time and approach for asking these questions in a way that invites constructive and candid responses is critical.
Second is the ability to ask questions about plans and projects. The examples mentioned above both fall into this category. The challenge with questioning projects is to do so in a way that not only advances the work, but that also builds relationships and helps the people involved to learn and develop. This doesn’t mean that your questions can’t be tough and direct, but the probing needs to be in the spirit of accelerating progress, illuminating unconscious assumptions and solving problems. This is in contrast to some managers who (perhaps out of their own insecurity) ask review questions either to prove that they are the smartest one in the room, or to make someone squirm. On the other hand, many of the best managers I’ve seen have an uncanny ability to engage in Socratic dialogue that helps people reach their own conclusions about what can be done to improve a plan or project, which of course leads to much more ownership and learning.
Finally, practice asking questions about the organization. Although usually unspoken, managers have an obligation to always look for ways that the organization as a whole can function more effectively. To do this, they need to ask questions about practices, processes, and structures: Why do we do things this way? Is there a better approach? Asking these questions in a way that does not trigger defensiveness and that is seen as constructive is an important skill for managers.
Most of us never think about how to frame our questions. Giving this process some explicit thought however might not only make you a better manager; it might also help others improve their inquiry skills as well.
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Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done.
Yes and No
The title is a misnomer: Although the authors do indeed suggest how to “break through the chains of organizational structure”, they provide an enlightening explanation of four different types of boundaries (vertical, horizontal, external, and geographic) which give definition to any organization. They do not advocate the total elimination of these boundaries (which is impossible, anyway); rather, they suggest how to rearrange them so that an organization can thrive. For the authors, there is what they call “A New World Order”:
“In living organisms, membranes exist to give the organization shape and definition. They have sufficient structural strength to prevent the organism from dissolving into an amorphous mess….Like a living organism, the boundaryless organization also evolves and grows, and the placement of boundaries may shift….Because the boundaryless organization is a living continuum, not a fixed state, the ongoing management challenge is to find the right balance of boundaryless behavior, to determine how permeable to make boundaries, and where to place them.”
This brief excerpt from the first chapter correctly suggests the purpose of this remarkable book: To explain HOW to meet that challenge.
The material is presented within four parts plus a conclusion. The first explains how to achieve “free movement up and down” by crossing vertical boundaries; the second explains how to achieve “free movement side to side” by crossing horizontal boundaries; the third explains how to achieve “free movement along the value chain” by crossing external boundaries; and in the fourth part, they explain how to achieve “free global movement” by crossing geographic boundaries.” Then in the Conclusion, the authors discuss “Making It Happen: Leading Toward the Boundaryless Organization.”
The authors also include a series of six questionnaires. By completing each in sequence, the reader is able to determine (a) where her or his organization is now located relative to “the boundaryless paradigm”, and (b), what is needed to eliminate the “gap” between where it is now and where it should be. Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to read The Boundaryless Organization Field Guide. It contains a a hands-on set of diagnostic instruments as well as exercises and tools, and a disk with presentation slides in Powerpoint format.
I agree with the authors: The most restrictive organizational boundaries are in the minds of those within an organization. Organizational as well as personal wounds are usually self-inflicted.