Jesse Newton makes the case for simplifying your organization’s complex processes and getting rid of distractions.
- The five factors that drive organizational complexity
- Key questions that clarify what’s truly important
- The communication mistake people make when simplifying work
Jesse Newton is the author of Simplify Work; Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement. He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work; a global management consulting firm that helps organizations throw off the shackles of debilitating complexity and reignite top performance. His clients include McDonalds and PepsiCo. Prior to launching Simplify Work, Newton was a senior member of Booz & Company’s Organization, Change and Leadership consulting practice and also spent a number of years consulting around the world with Ernst & Young’s People & Organizational Change practice.
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- Jesse’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jesse-newton-2a46a812/
- Jesse’s email: JNewton@SimplifyWork.com
- Jesse’s book: Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement
- Research: How Complicated Is Your Company?
- Research: Culture and engagement
- Book: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker
- Book: Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson
Jesse, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to connect and talk about Simplify Work.
I’m excited too. I was intrigued to learn that only a few people know that you are a New Zealander. How is this the case? Do they assume it’s Australia or what happens?
Well, people see that I’m living here in Chicago and they make the automatic assumption that I’m American. Then when I start talking, they immediately realize that that’s not a Chicago accent.
Then to your point, they automatically go to Australia or England. I even get South Africa. Then people are totally stumped. I have to say, “Well, there is another country in that part of the world and New Zealand is it.” I’ve been over here for ten years and it’s been a fun ride, but still, as you can tell, have not been able to let go of the accent.
Well, don’t ever let go of it. I think it’s fun. I think it will serve you well in many regards. I had a great manager at Bain who was a New Zealander, Blair Nelson, great dude. He would explain why they’re called Kiwis and we’re not talking about the fruit. He’d go through that.
What’s your take on Flight of the Conchords with Bret and Jemaine and what they’ve done for the New Zealand image?
It’s funny. There are a couple of shows and movies that have done incredible things for New Zealand’s image, at least from an awareness standpoint. You’ve got The Flight of the Conchords, massive success; Lord of the Rings; The Hobbit. People think that New Zealand is a land where goblins and wizards and dragons cruising around. It just sort of adds to people’s interest I guess in the place.
But it’s funny, a couple of shows have really raised the awareness, especially here in America, of New Zealand.
Well, we saw Bret and Jemaine live when they were at Millennium Park in Chicago and that was fun. I think in addition to all these goblins and creatures, it’s a land of hilarity and very creative music. We’ll give you that one too.
I’ll take it. I was actually at that performance too. I thought it was ….
Oh no kidding. Well, we could have been in the beer line together.
And we wouldn’t have even known it.
Your latest work, you’ve got a book here, Simplify Work. What’s the big story behind this one?
Well, like yourself, I have a management consulting background. I’ve been lucky enough to work around the world and with over 100 organizations. Basically, every company that I’ve been exposed to has really battled with complexity, so people getting stuck in just meeting overloads and reporting to multiple managers and trying to keep on top of emails and just unclear global matrixes, where people have no clue who’s responsible for what.
It inevitably results in people getting sucked into this complexity, losing focus of those few strategic priorities and becoming very reactive, becoming reactive firefighters. People just get stuck in this ongoing repetitive process of coming in and going through the emotions versus being very clear about what’s truly important, most important, and really prioritizing time, energy, and focus on those few things that matter most.
The experiences coupled with a ton of research really led me to write the book. I really am hugely energized by it. I think there’s just a ton of opportunity for organizations to let go of all those things that are getting in their way, to really liberate the best thinking in their people, liberate innovation, and also employee engagement.
People don’t like coming in and having to spend a huge tract of their week doing administrative tasks or having to submit expenses or spend half the year doing budgeting. They want to come into work and feel energized and passionate about the really interesting, creative opportunities they get to focus on and deliver real impact on the business. That’s done through careful design both from an organization as well as individually at what we can do to help to crush complexity.
Well, so I’d love to hear, you said you did lots of research. Could you unveil some of the most compelling research that suggests just what’s at stake or what’s possible in terms of the scale of how bad and evil and toxic complexity is or the scale of just how amazing of a difference it makes when you arrive at that simplicity?
Sure, there are a couple little sort of statistics. There was some surveys, some research done by the Boston Consulting Group a few years ago. Something like 73% of organizations classified their operations as overly complex.
Coupled with that from an employee engagement standpoint, there’s a statistic that I think Deloitte did or there’s some research that Deloitte did that drove to a statistic on 80% of employees being not engaged, not actively disengaged, but just disengaged but not actively disengaged. Basically people are coming in, they’re checking out, they’re going through the motions, not really coming in and energized and ready to put in all of their effort and focus and capabilities into the job.
I’m picking that and connecting that with this complexity piece. There’s just this gigantic opportunity for companies to take a blank piece of paper and rethink how work is managed in their companies.
Then looking into the common sources of complexity – there’s five things. We look at strategy, structure, we look at process, system, and culture. Each of these important elements of an organizations really fuel organizational complexity within the business. Happy to talk about those a bit more, but then the other important piece is we, individually, also are responsible for driving complexity as well.
Well, could you maybe give us an example of an organization or some individuals in an organization that were just crushed by the complexity – they weren’t crushing the complexity; they were crushed by the complexity – and what that looks, sounds, feels like in practice in terms of their experience and productivity and how they came out on the other side and what the new world looks like?
Absolutely. I’ve got one direct experience, one … example and then another one that is from research. The first is from an organization that I consulted with recently, in the last two years. It’s a global consumer package goods organization. They were really battling with complexity. I was working with them in a commercial function, so sales and marketing.
They had really high-paid global experts spending a huge tract of their week doing those administrative tasks that I mentioned earlier, the expense processing, the budgeting, and basically were getting more and more angry and disconnected with the company because of their lack of time to do the most important things.
Interestingly during this project, they were hit by this huge global cyber-attack. The entire organization went down. People could not connect to the internet. They couldn’t connect to their email or their calendar, which meant that they couldn’t attend any meetings. All calls, all communications were driven online. This outage lasted for a couple of weeks.
Then when they reconnected and in discussions with these leaders across the marketing sales functions, I was gobsmacked when I heard that they actually felt incredibly liberated during the outage. They said for the first time in a very long time, they didn’t need to attend all of these extraneous meetings. They didn’t have to produce all of these extra reports and fill in templates and navigate through all these different sort of email channels.
Instead they were able to think about “All right, which individuals do I need to connect with directly to drive my most important priorities?” They picked up phones and scheduled face-to-face meetings. Sales people went out and reconnected with key clients and closed deals and built relationships. When I came back, I was very surprised to hear that.
Coming out of that, let’s take this as an example of how complexity comes to life within this particular function. Then let’s get very specific about those specific things that are getting in your way. Let’s do an inventory of the meetings that you attend. Let’s be very clear on the different reports that you need to fill in and the templates you need to fill in. How much time are you spending on each of these different activities?
Then let’s be very creative in how we remove those things or redesign how you get your work done so that those other extraneous things are minimized or handed to a different group or other ways of basically helping them to get more focused on those most important priorities.
Very cool. Thank you.
The second piece was Apple. There’s a great example of when Steve Jobs re-entered Apple in ’97, he’s famously focused on simplicity. You see that in the design of the products. But organizationally, he also drove simplicity.
When he rejoined Apple, there was something like 26 products at Apple. Then he did a review of these different products. Apple strategy at the time was we need to have a product in every industry segment. We need to have a presence there because we’re a top leading IT company. When he joined and did the review, he funneled it down to about I think it was 6 products, so from 26 to 6.
The focus shifted from presence in all of these different industry segments to let’s make the best products that are going to change the world. That transition to a few enabled the organization to focus. His guiding orientation around focus and then top quality really drove that transformation of Apple, which then has led to the company becoming incredibly successful. A couple of quite different examples there on the power of that simple focus.
Well, so could you orient us then? You’ve got five sort of drivers of complexity. If you were trying to bring about some simplicity, where would you start? Or since you’re a good consultant, you know all about the 80/20 principle in action, what would you say are the biggest drivers that really give you a whole lot of bang for your buck with regard to getting that simplification going with a modest amount of effort?
Sure, sure. The approach can be distilled into three simple steps. Really, the first is you’ve got to get clear on what’s most important. This could apply to an organization. It could apply to a function, a team, or an individual. That first focus on “Okay, let’s take a step back and think about what are the true priorities? What are the few things that are going to deliver the greatest impact?”
I think that’s critical. It has to be there because without it, you can’t effectively prioritize. You can’t say no to things without that clear understanding of strategic priorities. I would say that that first step is critical.
Okay. How do you do that well?
Well, it depends on what part of the organization you’re focusing on or whether it’s individual. But if you’re at an organizational level, it’s strategy, so which products are winning, which services are winning, where is the organization going to win in the future. It’s those types of questions. What are our best capabilities? How is the market evolving? General strategy questions that you would expect at that level.
At an individual level, so if it’s someone … function, it’s “What are my priorities? What are the group’s priorities for the year? How does that translate to me? How can I deliver the greatest impact relative to those group level priorities as well as the organization’s?” and then work backwards from there. It’s sort of answering those sorts of questions.
Well, could you offer a few more sort of sub-questions, if you will, with regard to zeroing in on the group’s biggest priorities and how you arrive at those. I guess sometimes the group knows it and they tell you and sometimes they don’t and it takes a little bit more work to get there. Then at your own level, thinking about how you can make the biggest level of impact that bubbles up to the group. Do you have any extra favorite clarifying questions?
Like, “Are you clear on the company strategy mission and values? What is the purpose of your role? How do you contribute to the business of success? What are your priorities?” I list out a number of those types of questions within each of the areas.
What I think would be more valuable to sort of get to your question is those categories to focus on at the individual level, which I talk about in the backend of the book, those are really around “How do I reduce clutter? How do I get clear on what’s most important for me individually? How do I stop interruptions and distractions? How do I really nurture my own energy? How do I optimize email and meetings and plan effectively?”
Those types of questions I think, given the context of this podcast, would be quite helpful.
Oh absolutely. I love them all. Let’s tick into each of them. How do we reduce the clutter? What have you found to be some best practices?
Yeah, for sure. From a clutter perspective, it’s everything from look at your desk. Is your desk covered in paper? Take time to get your desk clear.
Look at your filing cabinet. I used to be one of these people where I would put documents away that I’d think I’d get back to or that I think might be useful, but when you actually go through and do a review of all the paperwork you’ve got in your filing cabinet, you can probably get rid of 75% of it, which was certainly my experience, which is massively liberating. Just having a clear desk, having a clear filing cabinet enables you to think more clearly.
Likewise with all of the documentation in your laptop on your hard drive. Is it a spaghetti of different folders with numerous documentation? Go through and actually cull all those things that you don’t use. Make it really clear how to access the bits of information you use all the time. Clutter is a big deal.
I’d also encourage people to look at clutter in their own personal environment. Go into your wardrobe and look at your clothing. I still also have shirts that I would think I would wear at some point but never actually did, so just get rid of it. There’s a lot of value behind this whole minimalism movement that’s become quite popular. It is very liberating to get rid of all the extra unnecessary stuff.
Then this getting clear on what’s most important at the individual level, there’s two parts of it. Obviously, we talked a little bit about work and your role within an organization, but what I say in the book and what I encourage is that get really clear on what’s most important to you from a personal perspective, whether it’s family or health or religion or whatever it may be.
But get clear on both your personal and then work priorities. Then organize your time around it so that you optimize it for both. You’re basically focusing all the time that you have during the day and week on those activities that are most important to you, which leads into the third piece around planning.
Probably one of the greatest things that an individual can do to crush complexity is to plan effectively. Be very disciplined about your calendar and carving out time to think, and to collaborate, to respond to emails, to attend the most important meetings. But then also spend time with kids or do whatever you want from a health perspective, etcetera, etcetera. Being very disciplined about managing a calendar is also really important.
The avoiding distractions and interruptions. Our phones are like magnets. We’re just drawn to the phones. We’ve built these habits around needing to check our phones every few seconds let alone minutes.
During the day, if you’re trying to do something that requires deep thinking, work that is innovative or if you’re trying to solve some problems, it really impacts your productivity when you’re being interrupted by a WhatsApp message or a Facebook post or a LinkedIn message. It takes energy to regain that deep focus.
One of the suggestions is be very clear about when you do your best work or how much time you think it’s going to take to produce a piece of work that requires that deep thinking. Then shut off all the distractions and interruptions. Turn off your browser. Even turn off your email. Put your phone upside down and put it on silent. But allow yourself to really focus on that most important activity.
Optimizing email and meetings is another one. From an email perspective, one of the causes of people becoming over reactive is just the needing to respond to the latest fire or having to keep up with these huge email chains.
One suggestion is one email, one action. Don’t just continue to manage email during the day. Carve out time to manage email during the day. It could be every two hours or every three hours or whatever it may be. But don’t allow email to continue to interrupt you during important work.
When you’re dealing with it, act on it in the moment. If you can respond immediately, do so. If you think that you know it’s going to require more time, whatever it may be, then create that time on your calendar and be disciplined about going back to that.
But one of the things that contributes to people becoming overwhelmed is that they lose track of all these different emails they’re supposed to respond to and they forget about some. They become increasingly reactive to it versus in control.
The meetings, really question whether you need to attend every meeting. Have the conversations with the team and managers around optimizing the time. When you’re really clear on what’s most important for you in your role, you can be a lot more deliberate around what meetings you attend and you can say no to things because you’re very clear on your top priorities. That piece is important.
Then finally, nurture and protect your energy. I don’t want to sound too philosophical or like a Buddhist monk, but there’s a lot of value in meditation. I think the whole idea of human energy is going to become more of a buzzword in the next couple of years because we’re increasingly discovering that our energy is key to performance.
Having little mindfulness moments at work give you shots of clarity and energy. It helps to really elevate thinking and consciousness so you don’t get stuck worrying about the minutiae by being caught reacting to things. It helps reestablish that macro perspective.
Understanding your own energy and doing the things that it takes for you to recharge your batteries like going for a walk or that five-minute meditate or whatever it may be, will really help to keep you focused and also not burning out trying to keep up with everything. Those are the few things. I hope that’s helpful.
Yes, thank you. Can you talk a little bit more, you said with email, one email, one action. How does that work in practice?
Yeah, going through your Outlook, pull up an email. The idea is as soon as you’re looking at an email, you want to be able to action it immediately. If you can’t, if it’s going to require a lot more work, if you have to connect with different people, whatever it may be, then that creates time on your calendar to come back to it.
The purpose being that you’re not losing track of email and you’re not letting them build up. It’s an efficient way of keeping on top of email without letting them sort of result in an email overload if you like.
That would be in contrast to, “Oh, got to do more stuff on that, just skip it.” You’re saying, “No, no, we’re not going to just skip it, but rather we’re going to put it somewhere,” in this case maybe an item on the calendar, so it’s out of the inbox and then it’s a calendar item?
Right. Or if you don’t need to respond to it, delete it. Or respond to it there and then if it requires a response. But you’re not creating more work for yourself in the future. You’re dealing with it in the moment, which is enabling you to keep up on the constant stream of emails.
When folks are trying to go about simplifying their work, what are some of the mistakes or challenges or hang-ups you see folks bump into when they’re embarking upon this?
I think make sure you have the conversations with your team and leaders. What you don’t want is to all of the sudden be not attending a range of meetings and potentially you’re impacting relationships without the context.
I would encourage people to sit down and just have a chat and say “Hey, I want to be really diligent about wasting my time and I’m clear that I need to achieve these things. I’m driving towards these objectives. Therefore, I’m going to be making decisions going forward on which meetings I really need to attend or how I respond to emails,” whatever it may be. I think just clarify that what your intent is when approaching simplifying work.
Got you. Thank you. Okay well then, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
No, I think, again, the opportunity is huge for organizations and for individuals. I think taking that big step back and either looking at your company or at how you approach work and thinking through strategically how can you do the best work and what’s most important.
What are the things that are getting in the way that are sucking my time or distracting me or pulling me away from the most important activities and what can I do or what can be done to really remove those things and redesign the way you do work to enable that focus I think can really serve to liberate peak performance.
Lovely. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Well, I’m not sure about favorite quotes on the spot. A couple of books that I read recently that I’ve really enjoyed reading that sort of reinforce a couple of important points. One of them is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Have you heard of this book?
Yeah. I’m the eternal optimist. I’ve always felt that the world is getting better. It was just wonderful to read that book and to see the facts and data behind how we are actually as a society improving. I think from an organizational maturity perspective and the … of simplify work I think it continues to sort of build on that idea of improvement, of progression.
We are now finally moving away from 20th century ways of managing work. Organizations are becoming sort of savvy around how do you tap into people’s intelligence and creativity, innovation. It’s not just about control anymore, which is very exciting. I think emerging technology will just continue to fuel that shift from an organizational structure perspective.
Then the second is Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. He’s a neuroscientist and has written a book on how you can basically change the structure of your brain by the way that you think and in particular … moments of positivity. You can basically build more of a bias towards optimism and happiness and contentment.
I think building on that, what I was mentioning earlier about managing and nurturing energy and the power of mindfulness and meditation I think this book is pretty revealing on the science behind actually changing the structure of your brain and building the right habits.
Okay. Can you share with us a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?
Favorite tool. Well, I think it’s just coming into work every day and having that reminder of “Okay, how do I – what’s the most important thing to get done this day?” and then immediately jumping into it. It’s just an ongoing – that reminder of “Okay, whatever is critical, I’m not going to put that off and do it in the afternoon. I’m going to do that out of the gate and focus more time and energy on that one piece.” That’s just one orientation that guides the work that I do.
Is there a particular nugget when you share it that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners?
I think it’s just this idea of how do you increasingly tap into peak performance. We so easily get pulled into distractions or get interrupted or we get stuck doing repeatable tasks or in this … reactivity. I think the idea of being much more proactive and deliberate and focused can really serve to liberate peak performance, can help people to really tap into energy and passion and focus.
I think that’s the nugget. I really hope that people sort of step back from the book and feel inspired by the new found reality they can create both within the organization and their life by simplifying it.
Do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Sure. I think look for opportunities to crush stupid rules within your company. Maybe time bound it. You can try and crush one stupid rule every two weeks. Or all the meetings that come in, question whether you need to attend those, likewise with email.
Approach work through a critical eye. What are the things that are pulling me from top priorities and really question if those are needed. And then have those conversations with your teams to discuss whether all of those things are necessary.
Jesse, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point folks?
Simplify Work, the book, it’s available on Amazon. I’m available on LinkedIn. You can contact me by email at JNewton@SimplifyWork.com. I’m happy to get in touch and discuss the idea of Simplify Work.
Lovely. Well Jesse, it’s been a good time. I wish you lots of luck in your simplifying and all your adventures.
Thank you so much.