The Power of Simplicity

It is a key test for leaders: Can you take complex tasks – like working through countless variables for, say, your organization’s values or strategic goals – and distill them into a short list that everyone can remember?

And just how short should the list be?

I would suggest no more than three, at the most.

The CEOs I interview each week for my Corner Office series offer regular reminders of the power of simplicity. In last week’s interview with Brad Garlinghouse, the CEO of YouSendit, he described the new cultural values that he helped develop after he was brought in to help turn the company around.

It’s a short and punchy list – “Be in. Be Real. Be Bold.” – and it’s memorable.

I’ll let him explain what they mean:

“‘Be in’ is all about passion. Life is short. There are so many interesting things we can do in our life, and I feel like if someone is just kind of showing up, it’s not worth it for them or for us.

“The second value, ‘be real,’ is really about being authentic in our communication. I have seen different cultures in my career that I felt had atrophied and needed revitalization, and they were the ones where you just didn’t feel like people were being real in terms of their communication. You’d sit in a meeting and work through something and think you got somewhere, and then you walk out of the room and someone’s putting the parking brake on and you don’t even know they’re doing that.

“And the last one’s about being bold. As some companies grow and develop, that instinct is almost beaten out of the system. To me, if we’re not failing a little bit, we’re not trying hard enough. I think great cultures encourage risk and are tolerant of failure. If you don’t do that, you’re going to end up with a culture that is stagnant and not thinking about the next generation of products and experiences.”

The repetition of “be” helps make it stick, but so does the fact that there are only three values. It seems to be the sweet spot for what our brain can remember day-to-day. If a company has eight values, can the employees really be expected to remember them all? Think about a time you had to make a quick run to the grocery store – if you have to pick up eight things, it’s a good bet you’ll be reaching for a scrap of paper to make a list before you head out the door.

What’s better than three? How about two?

Robert LoCascio of LivePerson, shared the story with me of how he worked with his employees to boil his company’s values down to just two.

“I invited everyone into the process, and I provided context to the whole thing. I remember that I had an all-company call and said: ‘You know what? We’ve done amazing things. We went from $20 million to $100 million in five years. We should be very proud, and we should congratulate ourselves. And now we are going to move forward, and we need to design a different environment, a different company. So let’s acknowledge that we’re going to do that as a team, as a company.’

“And we ended up all going to Israel, where our research offices are. All the employees, more than 300 of them, came. I remember some people said: ‘I don’t want to come. This is dumb.’ There was a lot of friction. But everyone came, and we spent three days doing this cultural evaluation. We were in small groups of 20, and we sat in circles. The first day people were like: ‘I don’t know what’s going on here. This is kind of crazy. It’s a little Kumbaya-ish.’

“We had 40 core values at that point — innovation, customer first, all the typical ones and then a bunch of other ones. Then, on the second day, we started to get more reflective about what all this meant. We eventually got to two core values: be an owner and help others. Be an owner is about us being owners as individuals, driving the business, and helping others is about being reflective and understanding that we’re in a community here. We can’t be selfish. And so that’s where we ended up with our core values, and it was a really fascinating process.”

This skill – to create simplicity out of complexity – is one that separates people as they move up in an organization. I call it a “Simple Mindset,” and it’s one of the five qualities that I've identified in my book -- “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed.” – to help explain why some people get promoted over others, all the way to the top of an organization.

Have you seen examples of leaders putting their “simple mindset” into action?


Adam Bryant

Corner Office Columnist at The New York Times