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Simply Effective: A book review by Bob Morris

Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done 
Ron Ashkenas
Harvard Business School Press (2009)

“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.

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