A Practical Guide to Simplification at Work

When it comes to workflows and processes, we have a collective tendency to overthink. Go back to the essentials and reconnect with your customers with our best-practice simplification template.

by Milica Radojevic — October 6th, 2022

Milica is the Head of People at Blinkist, leading Talent Development, Talent Acquisition, and People Operations. She loves hacking into how things work and finding ways to optimize and innovate in processes.

“Confronted by a world of complexity, we desire simplicity most of all”
The Simplicity Principle, Julia Hobsbawm

The complexity of our environment is overwhelming. We encounter it in every aspect of life, whether we’re pondering on which brand of milk to purchase, deciding how to spend a few hours of free time, or prioritizing our commitments at work.

Faced with all this mind-boggling complexity, we crave simple solutions, but we find ourselves entrenched in routines and workflows that are outdated, unnecessarily complex and difficult to navigate – oftentimes, those of our own making.

As the company matures, develops habits and rituals, those simple, elegant solutions can require a considerable amount of active reflection. If you slack off and get comfortable with executing without frequently questioning the ‘way things are done’, you’ll soon enough find yourself buried under layer upon layer of unnecessary documentation, procedures and tools that give the illusion of productivity without actually moving the needle.

In the recent months, we’ve made significant progress towards streamlining our people workflows here at Blinkist. We’d like to share a few practical examples of how simplification helped us get more done with less and move closer to our customers’ needs.

Simplicity as a guiding principle

Recently we’ve asked the entire organization to ‘kill a zombie rule or meeting’ in a 15 minute team exercise. The purpose was to encourage our teams to stop and reflect on their rituals and consider if there are redundancies that are no longer serving a purpose. As a result, 30+ meetings were removed from calendars. Imagine the time and mental capacity that this short reflection opened up for our teams.

Simplicity has been fundamental as to how we operate as a team and as a company. Even though there’s a great deal of complexity to what we do internally, when it comes to our services, we strive to make our user experience as straightforward as possible.

At the end of the day, our purpose as People & Culture is to enable our teams to do their best work and be the infrastructure for outstanding people experiences. Therefore, the tools that we provide need to be:

  1. easy to grasp,
  2. easy to adapt over time,
  3. aligned with the needs of the business, and
  4. in service of our people.

In other words, they need to be simple, adaptable, business-relevant and purposeful.

When designing our own Development Framework, we were very drawn to the idea of creating detailed, discipline-specific level descriptors. After reviewing the criteria above, it was clear that a complex framework like that would not stand the test of time. Updating it would require a tremendous investment from multiple stakeholders. Hence, we opted for a simpler solution – more general level guidelines, specific enough to enable calibration, but broad enough to be relevant regardless of the job family.

Look for desire lines

Simple solutions can be found looking at how the system regulates itself on its own. When things start to get convoluted in the business context, people tend to cut corners to get results and move faster. It’s possible to find our best solutions right there, in how the rules or procedures are being bypassed. These organic pathways can indicate redundancies in your established workflows, and help identify entire policies or rules that have become obsolete. In companies with strong culture, common sense can be a good guide for organizational behavior. We believe that rules are for the few ‘bad apples’, while guidelines encourage ownership.

We are fans of applying a toolbox approach over rigidly standardized policies, wherever possible. For example, at Blinkist, teams are at liberty to decide which goal-setting methodology they prefer to use. There is the expectation, of course, that performance and development goals should be set at certain times, but when it comes to methods, they’re welcome to take a pick from our expanding library of tools to which they can also contribute their own solutions.

Crowdsourcing simplification solutions

“Revolutionary design solutions stem from observation and letting consumers take the lead.”
Change by Design, Tim Brown (listen to the Blinks)

Needless to mention, involving customers in the process of evaluation and redesign is key to success and adoption of any people program. By customers, we mean team leads, employee committees, hiring teams – whoever might be the end user of our service, or those impacted by the changes introduced.

We used this simple workshop format on Miro to conduct a simplicity audit of our people processes (developed by: Angeliki Sakellaropoulou). Onboarding and hiring processes proved to be excellent candidates for simplification as they are repetitive (template) processes, highly collaborative, and frequently used. The smallest efficiency gains would add up to significant improvements over time.

Our intention was to take a fresh look at how we deliver our services and co-create the new journey with the end users.

Part I: Picture of success

Our focus was on our internal customers – new joiners (onboarding) and hiring teams (hiring). We started off by defining success criteria: What does a successful onboarding/hiring process look like for our customers?

Take the time to realign on user expectations. You might come to learn that some parts of your offering are less important to your customers than you would have guessed. Instead, new expectations could emerge that you weren’t aware of.

Part II: Journey mapping

A journey map visualizes a series of consecutive actions that need to be performed to reach a certain outcome. We invited our customers to discuss the different stages and reflect on the best and the worst parts of their experience – so called gain & pain points. The last part was focused on co-creation of solutions.

What we liked about this approach? Collaboration – harvesting the power of our collective intelligence and diversity of perspectives. Engagement – as users were heavily involved in the process of creation, we could go on about our business without having to worry how they would respond to change.

The risk of oversimplification

Simplicity is achieved through streamlining – stripping off the non-essential. In practice this might translate into shrinking your offering, removing steps, excluding stakeholders from decisions, canceling well-established rituals or rules… There’s a trade-off to simplification that should not be disregarded.

You might decide to reduce the customisation of your service for the benefits of applying a standardized approach, as in the Development Framework example we shared above. In practice, this could mean that you’re offering a less personalized service to your customers in exchange for greater speed and efficiency. It is crucial to clearly establish the benefits of your simplification efforts and make sure that your stakeholders are ready to give up the extra bit.

Simplicity is certainly not the answer to all business problems. There are things that simplifying will not make better – think of generalizations or prejudice towards certain groups or behaviors. The natural tendency of our brain is to pre-select and simplify information in order to connect stimuli into a cohesive image of the world. The issue arises when this natural tendency goes unchecked and when unjustified simplifications (stereotypes) get rooted in our perception.

In conclusion

Simplification is, without question, a powerful tool for increasing alignment and effectiveness of workflows.

However, it is very unlikely that the most elegant solutions will surface in isolation. Inviting your customers in the design of their own meaningful experiences brings in the diversity of perspectives, increases the relevancy of programs, and helps manage the change later on.

While simplifying can improve efficiency and speed, complexity is sometimes necessary and preferable. It is important to acknowledge all the implications and mitigate the risks of oversimplification.

When it comes to workflows, though, we have learned time and again that less does translate into more. In the hybrid and remote environments of today, with fewer spontaneous opportunities for alignment, it becomes even more important to re-introduce process simplicity wherever possible.

Stay tuned for a deep dive into the logic behind our 3-step hiring process in one of our next articles.

Recommended Blinks:

This is Service Design ThinkingChange by DesignThe Laws of Simplicity

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