Interview with Jesse Newton: Tackling Organizational Complexity

One of the biggest challenges faced by organizations of all sizes is how to deal with organizational complexity. For many business leaders and employees, their days may seem governed by rules and procedures, bothersome distractions or low-value tasks—leaving little time and energy for the work that matters most. This often leads to feelings of disengagement, unsatisfactory performance and burnout.

Jesse Newton, founder and CEO of Simplify Work, shares some practical tips on how to reduce organizational complexity and help people rekindle that excitement for what they do. Newton has helped over 100 companies around the world benefit from the simplicity doctrine. He is the author of Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement



Greg Corombos: Hi, I'm Greg Corombos. Our guest this week on Expert Insights is Jesse Newton. He's an expert advisor at Northwestern University. He is also the founder and CEO of Simplify Work. And he's the author of the brand new book Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement. And Jessie thanks so much for being with us.

Jesse Newton: Thank you, Greg. Thanks for having me,

Greg Corombos: How'd you become passionate about this topic of simplifying work. How big a problem is it?

Jesse Newton: I've been consulting with over 100 companies around the world. And just reflecting on the experience across those organizations, it was very apparent that there's just a massive opportunity to remove a lot of distracting things with an organization that pulls people from the highest priorities. And so it's a huge opportunity, and one that is really energizing to be able to expose it and to be able to help companies through the opportunity to discover those things that are most important and remove those shackles that are holding them back.

Greg Corombos: Let's dive in to get a little more specific because you talk in the book, and your company is all about this, you're passionate about helping companies remove the things that get in the way of their people doing their best and their most important work. You just mentioned that. What are some examples of those, what are things that businesses routinely have to deal with that they shouldn't be?

Jesse Newton: Well, essentially, you know, as organizations grow up, they add more structures and processes, rules, metrics, committees, reports. I could go on. And basically what it will lead the individual employee, is in this position within a labyrinth. They have to navigate, who's responsible for what, and constantly having to complete these reports, or trying to understand various communication channels, and how do I connect with this particular group, or... And if they get left in the state where they become very reactive, and they lose sight of those things that are most important. So they...it's harder to become much more proactive around how you organize your day and where you allocate your time and energy. Because we live to react and respond to the plethora of demands on your time. And so from an organizational perspective, it's not serving to really liberate the best thinking and innovation and collaboration and engagement. A lot of people are becoming disengaged within organizations. And a big driver of that is that organizational complexity that has crept into many organizations over a long time frame.

Greg Corombos: Alright, so you crush complexity by simplifying work. How do you do it?

Jesse Newton: It depends on which part of the organization you're looking at. So whether it's at the top, whether it’s strategic, or whether it's structural, or whether, you know, you're looking at systems or process. But, you know, you can distill it into three broad steps. The first is getting clear on what is truly important, you know. Taking a big step back and thinking about, okay, what are the true strategic priorities? What are the things that are going to deliver the greatest impact on performance? You know, without understanding and aligning on what is truly most important, it's impossible to prioritize, it's impossible to say no to things. And so, inevitably, you end up in a very reactive mode, just completing instructions that are given to you. The second piece is, understand how work actually gets done today. So what are people spending their time on, you know?. What are the activities? How much time is spent on each activity? And then once you're going that inventory of, you know, what is it that encompasses a day in the life of, you know, team member, x group, whatever, you can then assess each of those activities, and think about which is truly a priority, which...versus those things that are low value, that are just soaking up people's time and energy, and pulling them from the highest priority. Strategic activities.

And so once you've got that clarity, you can, obviously, step number three, remove or redesign all those things that are pulling people from their most important work. So, you know, it could be removing a chunk of administrative tasks. It could be booking travel or processing expenses. It could be certain activities within a budgeting process. It could be some compliance activity.

So it's just identifying those things that could be removed. Or you're redesigning it, so it becomes more automated or less cumbersome. And an example is, you know, performance management. So, for decades, the whole process of annual performance management was pretty clunky, you know. And people dreaded the process of having to write up the reviews and, you know, rate people, and sit down. The focus became more on how do we get through this process versus how do we get the value from the process? Which, you know, there's a huge amount of potential for a lot of value to be created through an effective performance management process. But people were getting lost in just the cumbersome nature of the process. And so, a couple of years ago, a few experts come up with a few different perspectives on performance management, that tested some of the assumptions around the effectiveness of traditional performance management, which led to organizations questioning whether their process was the right one. And many organizations since have transformed their performance management system to strip out the cumbersome nature, to make it much more targeted, focused on those parts of the process that are most valuable. Like rich coaching conversations between managers and employees, for instance. And so that's just one example of how you can follow that three-step process, get clear on the priorities, understand the reality of work today, and then remove or redesign the things that are getting in the way of those priorities.

Greg Corombos: Excellent advice. Some folks might be wondering, Jesse, these cumbersome tasks. Oftentimes, they still need to be done, but they could be done more efficiently, or perhaps they should be moved to someone else in certain cases. So how do you make sure that the work that needs to get done, even if it's cumbersome, while still bringing people up to do what they do best.

Jesse Newton: One good strategy from an individual perspective is getting a lot better at planning. from an individual perspective, understanding, you know, annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly. How do you cascade the top annual goal into quarterly plans? How do you then translate quarterly plans into weekly plans? And organize your week around those top priorities.

So if you know that your most productive in the morning, you do your best thinking and innovating between the hours of 9 and 11, protect that time, then focus on those highest priority activities. Allocate a big chunk of the week or whatever chunk is appropriate to get through the administrative tasks in a timeframe that isn't, you know, your most productive time. So if it's in the afternoon, or Thursday afternoon, or take a proactive view of your weekly calendar and time-bound specific activities. And that even includes checking email. So interruptions and distractions is a driver of individual complexity. So carve out time in the day to check and to respond to emails. It could be before lunch, or after lunch, or in the morning. It can be three times a day, four times a day. But what you're doing is you're limiting the interruptions and distractions that can break your deep focus and concentration, can inhibit your best work. And so that's one sort of finite practical way, or from an individual perspective, proactively, you know, taking charge of your week and your time and your energy and organizing it so that you're more effective.

Greg Corombos: I really like to focus on time, because that's the commodity that everyone has the exact same amount of. Some businesses might have more resources than others. Some have more people. But everyone's got the same amount of time. And so being able to prioritize that and organize it effectively is definitely a key. As we get ready to close here, Jesse, I just want to have you share a story or two. Might be your own story, I don't know. Or clients you've dealt with, of the difference this makes when you simplify the work, when you deal with these cumbersome tasks in an effective way, organize your time in a better way. How have you seen that liberate innovation, productivity and engagement?

Jesse Newton: It’s massively energizing when you see people, employees see the opportunity. So I facilitate numerous workshops, and I help different groups, whether it’s functional leadership or leadership of an organization, just look at the organization or their function team through the lens of simplification. And it's just hugely energizing to see the reaction and the people when you identify all of those things that are pulling people from their work. And so for instance, when you capture that list of items. People are often unaware of how many things that people are having to manage. And the competing requests and pressures on their time is often unknown and unclear. And so shining a spotlight on all of those things that people are having to manage...and is very eye-opening for organizations. And then, you know, once they have the ability to pull things away, the increased energy and excitement and the passion and enthusiasm returns to the job. Because all of a sudden, people are able to come into work and do what they were hired for, instead of having to manage low-value work or being pulled in multiple directions and feeling like they aren’t in control of their performance.

Greg Corombos: Well, liberating folks to be as productive as possible is not only good for their own attitude towards work, as you mentioned before, when they have all these other tasks that distract them from those things. It really hurts morale and the overall performance of the business. And so making life more exciting and more focused for the individual makes it better for the team, which makes it better for the business. And there's a whole lot more in this book that I wish we had time to get to.

But Jesse, we've hopefully scratched the itch enough so people want to pick up a copy of it. It's called Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement. You can get it now at Amazon.com and elsewhere. It officially goes on sale February 5. And sir, thank you so much for your time today. We greatly appreciate it.

Jesse Newton: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.

Greg Corombos: Jesse Newton is an expert advisor at Northwestern University. He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work. That's also the title of the book again, Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement. I'm Greg Corombos. And for more information on this topic, please call CT at 844-787-7782


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