The Complexity-Simplicity Trade Off

3 minute read
Gerry McGovern avatar

Some years ago I listened as a CIO for a large organization boasted about his new sales management system. The new system required sales reps to go through 14 steps in order to enter a sales lead. The old system required four steps. 

Luckily, there was a senior sales manager in the room. “Are you crazy?” he asked the CIO. “How on earth can you claim that a system which demands 14 steps instead of four is more efficient!?” The CIO explained how all the extra information and steps would allow for more complete data and would sync up with other internal systems.

There might -- at a huge stretch -- be some logic in all this integration and syncing up. However, the 14 steps were exceptionally poorly designed. Utterly unintuitive, they looked more like a torture chamber than a sales lead entry system. This twisted logic, ladies and gentlemen, is supposed to be progress in some of the world’s largest organizations.

In 2013, Avon cancelled a $125 million investment in a SAP enterprise system that had taken four years of effort to install. Basically, Avon sales people refused to use it because it was a usability nightmare. This should not be remotely surprising. Many of the systems organizations give to their employees are usability monstrosities.

The reason for this is that senior management just doesn’t care. It has abdicated its responsibility when it comes to technology. It sits there listening to presentations about huge savings if only huge amounts of money are spent. It allocates the budget and walks away, because “it’s technology” and that’s too hard to understand for a senior manager.

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The problem goes even deeper. Senior managers don’t care about their salaried employees’ time. I’ve been doing web consulting since 1994 and I have yet to meet a senior manager who really cared about making it easier for employees to do their jobs. I know that’s a pretty astonishing statement but it’s true. That’s the underlying reason why employees get such truly horrible internal systems. Making it easy and fast for them to do their jobs is quite simply not on the agenda of senior management.

This all reminds me of a project I was involved in with HSBC Hong Kong in the late '90s. They had a home mortgage application form which had 17 fields. They were getting two enquiries a week through the form. The web team reduced the number of fields to four. There was uproar internally. “The data won’t be complete. It won’t integrate. We’ll be getting stupid inquiries, etc. etc.” Luckily, the complaints were ignored. In the first week there were 180 inquiries. In the first quarter with the new form, $20 million in new mortgages were booked. With the old form, less than $1 million was being booked per quarter.

The exact same productivity and efficiency gains are waiting for organizations that focus on making work easier, faster and more collaborative for employees. So, why hasn’t it happened? Because complex, usability-nightmare, expensive IT systems that are launched and left to rot make life easier for IT professionals and senior managers.

It’s the complexity-simplicity tradeoff. Making life easier for employees requires much more ongoing hard work from management and IT. It takes management time to save employees time and managers are simply not prepared to make that sacrifice. But for those who are willing to make the sacrifice, huge gains in productivity and efficiency await. Not to mention the benefit of creating positive, high-quality work environments that will result in greater employee engagement and loyalty. 

About the author

Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords. He is widely regarded as the worldwide authority on increasing web satisfaction by managing customer tasks.