06/30/2014 02:44 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

Simplicity: The Next Big Thing

I just completed a three-month world tour meeting with business and human resources leaders, giving speeches and talking with HR and business leaders about Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends research. The meetings and feedback have been amazing, but over and over one big topic keeps coming up: the need to make work, business, and life more "simple."

These were mostly large global organizations. Most are dealing with business growth and want to bring together their teams to be more aligned, move faster, become more innovative. They have gone through acquisitions and they have many remote locations and brands.

Business and Work Life Is Complicated

Their challenge? Work, life, and their own infrastructure has become far too complicated. More than 70 percent of the companies we surveyed, for example, believe their performance management process is out of date. In fact only 4 percent think it's worth the time people put in.

More than two-thirds of all the companies we surveyed (and all the ones I talked with) tell me that they believe their employees are "overwhelmed." Do they know how to simplify the work environment and make things more efficient? In most cases, no. Following Arianna Huffington's book Thrive, these companies are looking at new programs like "Mindfulness" and yoga to try to bandaid the problem. But these programs are only a start.

How Do We Simplify Work and Life?

As most companies tell me, we have inadvertently become too enamored with technology, mobile phones, social networks, photos, video sharing tools, and all the various competency models, frameworks, process diagrams, and workflows we design in Human Resources. Companies design "processes" and "programs" by committee, and what usually comes out is a complex and time consuming way to do business. (Filling out expense accounts is often one of these.)

When we look at email communications, it's usually too much and too often. One company I talked with told me they tried to ask managers not to send emails on weekends, but all they did was store them up and then send out dozens every Monday morning.

Another company told us that most of their meetings start late and tend to go over - wasting time and frustrating people in the office. And people continue to bring their phones and computers to meetings, making them less productive than ever.

How do we help manage our lives? How can businesses make our work life better?

Just Do Less

In most cases the answer is to do much much less.

One major manufacturer I met with is in the middle of a huge product transition from a legacy technology base to a new, electric technology. So they are building a whole new curriculum for their engineering and manufacturing teams focused on hundreds of detailed competencies.

They interviewed the senior engineers and manufacturers, identified all the competencies, and are now trying to figure out how to assess and develop people toward these competencies. The result is a dauntingly complicated project -- one that they believe may take several years to complete.

Is this the right answer? It may well be ... but I advised them to think more holistically, think about the day to day life of the engineers in the company, and look at ways they can empower their managers to train and facilitate advanced learning.

Simplicity: Not Simplistic

It turns out the mantra of "simplicity" applies everywhere. Let me give you some examples:
  • Do you need a nine step performance appraisal process? Of course not. Today's modern solution involves only two or three steps: periodic checkins and end-of-year review and development planning. Take other steps and move them into another process at another time (ie. comp, HIPO assessment, leadership assessment, etc).
  • Do we need a massive annual engagement survey that takes three months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete? Probably not -- what we need is a short, agile, periodic process to collect feedback at all levels online (and a whole barrage of vendors are building these new tools).
  • Do we need a course catalogue with 7,000 courses? Probably not -- most companies tell us there are only 5 percent of the courses that matter and the rest are there "just in case." That wastes people's time and makes them feel even more "overwhelmed."
  • Do we need HR software with hundreds of features and cascading menus? Probably not -- we need simple "apps" that do one thing only (that's the new trend) which are easy to use on mobile devices. Even modern tools like Workday and Salesforce have become very complex and feature laden.
  • Do we need 12 leadership competencies or can we strip it down to four or five? Do we need 10 company wide initiatives or can we boil it down to three?
  • Do we need 15 levels of management in the company or can we strip it down to five or six?

Simplicity Does Not Mean Easy: It's Hard

I'm not saying that our HR and internal corporate programs should be simplistic -- in fact they have to be very profound and well designed. But we have to spend much more time figuring out what we "dont need" and focus on the few things we "do need."

The best way to make things simple is to ask three simple questions: 1. What is the business problem or goal we're trying to achieve? (ie. increase sales productivity). 2. What are the top 2-3 talent challenges holding us back (this is the hard work)? 3. What simple new process, tool, technology, steps can we add that will fix (2) and contribute to (1).

A very advanced healthcare company who is one of the world's leaders in talent analytics told me earlier this year that they use analytics to focus on only one problem at a time. Their consultants go into the healthcare facilities and look for one single problem to work on. It may be nurse turnover, too much overtime, or maybe its poor patient ratings. They then spend three to four months studying that one problem -- and they come back with no more than two to three recommendations for improvement. They do not develop a massive program with dozens of steps, pert charts, and long drawn out meetings. Why? Because they know that in their environment line managers will only have time to do one or two things new.... so they spend months and months figuring what those key, "simple" but very profound changes should be.

So my advice to you, and to all of us in HR and leadership, is to use this economic recovery to start to think "simple" again. We don't need complex solutions -- they are hard to build and they probably won't stick. Take lots of time studying the problem, and then come up with a simple but profound solution. Hire a graphic artist to make your solution easy to understand, and just repeat it over and over until you see it stick.

Life has gotten very complicated over the last few years -- now is the time to work harder than ever to make "simplicity" the mantra for HR, leadership, and management strategies in the year ahead.

(PS check out Google's new Material Design if you want to see new ideas in simplicity.)