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We Need To Embrace The Genius Of The Obvious

2024 February 25
by Greg Satell

I’m currently reading Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao’s new book, The Friction Project, which is really a breath of fresh air. I was particularly struck by one passage in the beginning in which they write, “Friction fixers pride themselves in being masters of the obvious. They are mighty skeptical of secret solutions, shocking surprises, and miracle cures.”

It’s a simple truth that humans crave status and taking on an air of sophistication is one way to attain it. We have an urge to inject complexity, to make the case that we see something others don’t. This isn’t a moral failing, but as Will Storr explains in The Status Game, an integral part of how people relate to each other and signal identity.

So the first step toward embracing the genius of the obvious is to recognize that it isn’t something we naturally do. We tend to look for interesting stories involving complex phenomena behind things in our lives, which is why superstitions and conspiracy theories catch on. It takes effort and expertise to filter out complexity and expose the simple core.

Make It Easier For People To Perform And They Will Perform Better

While we like things to be simple, complexity is somewhat unavoidable. Complexity scientist  Sam Arbesman’s book, Overcomplicated, explains why. We start out with simple intentions, but then as we try to scale things up and do more, things naturally get more complicated through two processes: Accretion and interaction.

For example, the US constitution is a fairly simple document, but to run a modern society, the legal code has to deal with a wide range of activity, including crimes, contract disputes, family law and many, many other things, which is while the legal code is almost unimaginably large and complex. Take into account the interactions between different jurisdictions and it’s fair to say that no one on earth understands the entire US legal system.

The same thing happens in organizations. You can develop a simple process for, say, getting expenses approved, but you necessarily need to expand it to take into account a variety of different expenses, for different situations and levels of seniority. A junior executive taking a client out to lunch is very different from a more senior executive hiring a contractor. Add in interactions between different departments and functions and things get complicated.

That’s why Sutton and Rao make the seemingly obvious, yet profound, point that we need to actively work to make ourselves accountable for friction by being responsible trustees of others’ time. We need to limit the “smart talk” and “jargon monoxide,” that obscure rather than reveal issues and engage in a “subtraction mindset” in order to actively remove barriers.

It is this last point that I think is the most helpful. Processes accrete over time and, if you don’t remove those that outlive their usefulness, they stay on as zombies that gum up the works. Leaders need to get comfortable with saying, “no.” It’s too easy to enact a new policy or to start a new initiative. We need to do the hard work of figuring out what to remove.

Poor People Have Problems That Cause Them To Miss Work 

Managers often apply a procurement mindset to hiring. They determine what the “market rate” is for a particular task, role or set of skills, and then pay accordingly. Just as it doesn’t make sense to pay more for rent or a piece of equipment than you have to, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to pay more for an employee to do a job than you have to, right?

Not quite. In The Case for Good Jobs MIT’s Zeynep Ton points out that, unlike equipment and real estate, people have lives and those lives affect how they do their jobs. If they can’t afford healthy food, child care, a decent place to live or to be able to cover unplanned expenses, things will go wrong in their lives, which will cause them to miss work.

With more absenteeism, managers need to cover for employees and don’t have time to manage properly. Increased employee turnover results in increased training costs as well as greater burdens on managerial bandwidth. Morale declines along with performance, costing the business even more and, of course, because managers spend so much time plugging holes, nobody has time to fix anything.

Ton’s Good Jobs Institute works with organizations to fix the problem and has seen impressive results. From businesses as diverse as Aetna insurance, PayPal and Quest Diagnostics, raising the pay of financially insecure employees reduced turnover, which allowed the firms to invest in skills, manage more effectively and improve processes.

There is an obvious logic to it all. Poor people don’t make a lot of money, so raising their salaries doesn’t cost very much. In many, if not most, cases the increased productivity more than pays for itself if leaders are able to leverage a more stable, motivated workforce to improve operations and increase competitiveness.

People Resist Change

One of the most obvious principles about any kind of transformational initiative is that any time you ask people to change what they think or what they do, there will be people who won’t like it. Some will work to undermine what you’re trying to achieve in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive.

We all know this because we’ve all experienced it (and it has also been thoroughly documented in research). But some would have us believe that it doesn’t exist. Some so-called “change management experts” even claim that resistance to change is an illusion—the product of a failure to identify and communicate a value proposition rather than any real hostility to change.

This is so obviously hogwash that it’s hard to take it seriously, but then if you look at popular change management frameworks such as Kotter’s 8 Steps or Prosci’s ADKAR model, they have little or anything to say about overcoming resistance to change. In the rare instances they do discuss resistance they assume it is rational resistance and suggest some version of the information deficit model that we know doesn’t work.

That’s why at the beginning of every change initiative we work on we do a resistance inventory to anticipate who will resist, what form that resistance will take and what strategies can mitigate it. You can’t anticipate everything, but with a little planning, you can develop strategies to overcome even the most irrational, virulent resistance.

Don’t Overlook The Simple Truths

Ockham’s Razor, or the “principle of parsimony,” is often interpreted as another version of the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) rule. Yet it is far more profound than that. A far more accurate translation from the original latin is, “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” In other words, we should think before we add things that complicate matters.

In modern life we are constantly adding things. William of Ockham was a monk, who led a simple existence. We’re expected to build things and, as we do, principles, rules and procedures accumulate over time and, as a matter of course, multiply unnecessarily. We need to do the hard work of subtraction, taking out things that might have once made sense but don’t anymore.

When I’m writing, I always like to think my readers have a “cognitive budget” that they are willing to spend on a particular blog post, email, article or book chapter. When I edit, I always go through and ask, “is this worth the cognitive budget?” If there’s a doubt, I take it out. I’ve learned to apply the same principle to other facets of my life, to take out what doesn’t need to be there.

That’s the genius of the obvious. Simple truths are rarely left out in the open, but obscured by the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. It takes work to dig them out and that work requires focus. It doesn’t happen by itself, but takes determination to whittle down to the core, so that the truths we seek can reveal themselves to us.

We all need to hold ourselves accountable. Uncovering the obvious is not a simple thing, but the work of a lifetime. 

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter Holleley permalink
    February 25, 2024

    Ah, the joy of hearing Greg, respected Ph.d of Corporate Innovation, embracing for his international clientele, the corporate elite, with the simple practically that is The Genius of the Obvious, the bare-bones usefulness of Applying The Ordinary … so refreshing!
    This is language that foot soldiers – the people expected to enact the innovations that are so necessary to corporate survival in today’s world – can relate to.
    Forget the “principle of parsimony”, who knows what that means. But we can all relate to KISS in our daily lives in the physical world, dealing with tangibles. In our kitchen, for example, we tend to use a small knife to slice the garlic, a small pan to fry one egg, we add just enough milk to the dough so that the outcome looks more like cookies than wafers. But, as Greg says, human nature adds complexities, “To deep fry or air fry, that is the question” and “Should only Dad be allowed to load the dishwasher?”
    Greg calls upon those who are a Ph.d in Big Business to look down from their cloud and remember to apply “Simple Truths”. One such is to “think”. Thinking is mental movement which, of course, like select physical and emotional / soul movements is the embodiment of good health and wellness.
    But don’t just think, think things through (TTT or T3) and do it on a regular basis. Everything in our own known universe, some 14.6 billion light years old and still growing, is moving in its own process; from the microcells in our gut to intergalactic black holes, they’re all somewhere in a “start, change, stop” cycle.
    “In modern life … we’re expected to build things”; yes, but before we do, we need visions / dreams of what we want to see built along with skeletal oversight of the processes most likely to be required. Such are “Simple truths”.
    When the executive visionaries have done their creative “mental movements” and come up with something they’d like their foot soldiers to engage in, then comes the challenge of getting the attention, interest and participation of the crew … in today’s cluttered world, that’s a set of challenges for another chapter from guru Greg.
    Thanks, Greg; keep the good stuff coming!
    Toronto, ON, CA

  2. February 25, 2024

    Thanks for sharing, Peter.

  3. Ms Negotiators permalink
    February 27, 2024

    Your eloquent words are seriously required in our society of ‘must haves’, so called advertised ‘sales’ and inefficient, ineffective meetings in the workplace. The expectations and supercilious behaviours plus societal encouragement is destroying the fabric of society, home life with minimal disciplines. Here in Australia we follow the ‘throw away’ mentality purchasing on price not reliability and value. Accumulated cognitive waste is prevelent in many countries even those like Georgia 🇬🇪 where the intertwined generations are now more Western Society driven.
    Looking forward to your analysis 🧐 congratulations on a super subject!

  4. February 27, 2024

    FWIW, Georgia is one of my all-time favorite countries!

  5. March 20, 2024

    Howdy Mr. Satell,

    Permit me to fly in the clouds on a tangent. I can relate to your excellent post on “We Need To Embrace The Genius Of The Obvious” and the previous comment by Peter.

    Based on my experiences:

    1) KISS works for complexity when a talented instructor is selected to teach and facilitate in a short period of time.
    2) As “scale” is determined and “scope” is matched, details in complexity with incentives to learn to convert actions to unconscious behavior turn simple – KISS

  6. March 23, 2024

    Thanks Miguel!

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