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Workforce Development Simple Truth: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Complexity in the world is hitting us at a rapid pace, whether in our personal lives or the dynamic workplace. A quote traced back to Woodrow Wilson, although often used to emphasize the importance of short but impactful speeches, speaks to the challenge of reducing complexity:

If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.

Allowing complexity to creep in to life and work is easy. In our digital age, it’s almost natural. Simplifying has become a much greater challenge. To add more fuel to the simplification argument, according to a 2014 study by Oxford Economics and SAP, companies surveyed site Millennials entering the workplace as their number one talent concern for the future. Millennials, in particular, have no patience for complexity in their lives. As the number of Millennials in the workforce continues to increase, it is imperative for organizations to adapt to meet the expectations of this demographic.


So the question becomes: how can companies, and more specifically the HR function, tackle the issues of complexity in the workplace to attract, retain, and develop the best talent?

Well for one, simplifying is not simple. Sounds a bit counterintuitive, but this is what the quote from Woodrow Wilson outlined. The HR function needs to keep a guiding principle of simplicity when designing new processes, programs, and products at the forefront. Always question, is this simple? Does this make sense? If something is hard to understand or explain to others, it’s probably too complex.

Let’s take a look at how to build simplicity in the workplace with three core HR topics, all three of which are keys to building a strong leadership pipeline and sustaining the success of any company.

Leadership Development

According to an article in D!gitalist Magazine by SAP, Leading Your Organization Out of the Complexity Wilderness, management and leadership behaviors are the real root cause of complexity in large organizations. Complexity doesn’t just create itself; it’s created by the decisions, behaviors, and actions of people, not intentionally of course. The article questions whether Apple would be so successful if its founder and leader, Steve Jobs, wasn’t obsessed with simplicity? I’d venture to say, no. HR can play a huge role in helping to establish a culture of leadership that tackles complexity for years to come. Below are some tips on how to achieve simplicity through Leadership Development.

  1. Establish a leadership principle or competency that sets the expectation that simplicity is king. At SAP, a core leadership principle is Drive Simplicity and it’s expected that every leader incorporates this principle in their daily work and goals for the year. Make it crystal clear what behaviors and actions are expected. Even more importantly, measure leaders on their achievement of this principle through the employee survey, and hold them accountable through the performance management process.
  2. Create a leadership development program that supports the education of behaviors and actions needed to achieve simplicity. As mentioned above, most people don’t set out to create complexity in their work or the work of their employees. Embed education, through a robust leadership development curriculum, to help leaders recognize complexity, give them tactics to simplify and challenge complexity, and encourage their team to do the same. One behavior that leaders exhibit which creates complexity for their team is mistrust. Lack of trust drives people to create processes and systems to control people. Leaders need to trust their employees to deliver rather than establishing a bureaucratic process that gets in their way of success.
  3. Reward simplicity. Ensure you’re rewarding your leaders for creating simplicity, in addition to achieving their goals. There will be no progress, even if expectations are set for simplicity, if you continue to reward behaviors and achievements that create or foster complexity.


Leaders are not the only ones responsible for complexity in organizations; it’s relevant for everyone. Often people are unaware of when they are creating complexity through their behaviors and actions, so mentoring can be an important educational experience to help the organization achieve simplicity.

  1. Establish a network of mentors who role model the behaviors of simplicity. Behaviors can include: focus, trust, not over-engineering, and addressing the root causes of problems.  Learning through role models is one of the most effective ways to retain information and change behavior. This can be done by pulling those leaders who score high on simplicity related competencies or it can be a non-manager who demonstrates consistent behaviors of challenging complexity.
  2. Create a simple database of mentors that employees who are seeking a mentor can browse and select from based on availability and interests. In a large organization it’s difficult to find the appropriate mentor for everyone. Set your employees up for success by providing a simple tool that allows them to search and connect.
  3. Promote and encourage a mentor for everyone. Having a network of mentors is great, but if people don’t use the network, it’s useless. Through the goal and development planning process, promote the values of a mentor and ask managers, in consistent dialogue with their employees, to encourage every direct report to get a mentor.

Succession Planning

You can instill a great leadership development and mentoring program but it doesn’t mean much if you continue to hire and promote leaders and employees that create complexity. Succession planning is integral to ensuring your company has a pipeline of “the right” leaders to take your company into the future.

  1. Set expectations during the identification phase of your succession planning process, which requires the succession candidates for all key leadership roles (both people manager and thought leader roles) to model the behaviors of simplicity. This will be one way to ensure quality candidates, modeling the desired behaviors, when roles become available.
  2. Develop successors. Since you go through the lengthy process of identifying people for key roles that are flagged as not yet ready, you should invest time in actually developing them to become ready. Some companies struggle with this, as they choose not to be transparent to the successors that are nominated. This is a huge disservice to the nominated successor, as they have no opportunity to develop in the right way to get to that next step without knowing that they are nominated in the first place!
  3. Establish a goal to hire X% of candidates internally and ensure the recruiting team hires from the succession plan. This sounds basic, but you’re sending the wrong message if you set high expectations for internal employees to become successors, and go through the identification process of selecting the right internal candidates and then proceed with hiring externally anyway. You don’t want to hire internally for every role, but many organizations do a very poor job of utilizing and developing the identified successors. Make it a point to better this practice.

Achieving simplicity is not an easy task, and it’s more natural to err on the side of complex these days but, with a carefully planned, well thought out and strongly executed plan in place, the HR function can help organizations (and the culture) move the needle from complex to simple.

One last tip for the HR function, a common HR behavior is to consistently “reinvent” or change a process. While often times a change is important for adapting the organization, sometimes it just breeds complexity. As an HR professional, always make sure before changing something that you challenge yourself. Is it already working? Does it need to change? If a change is warranted, how can we create a process that is moving in the direction of simplicity, even if you need to sacrifice something else?

Good luck on your journey to create a culture of simplicity, it’s not simple.

To learn more about the importance of succession planning and workforce development in both building the workforce of the future and enabling business growth and success, please visit the newly launched Succession Management Digital Hub for the latest assets from SAP SuccessFactors. – .VgAhBl5rsbh?source=social-SCNBlogCTA-SCNBlog1Image-SUCCESSION_2015-LP-LP_SUCCESSION&url_id=CRM-XJ15-REG-HR_SDDHSF

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      Author's profile photo Celine Burgle
      Celine Burgle

      Very good article, thank you for the valuable input and food for thought.

      Besides being a given, if organizations don't make simplicity part of their agenda and continue to drive complexity, talents will leave faster.

      There is a direct negative impact with engagement and retention, a costly consequence that can be mitigated.