The Complexity of Simplicity

Embrace Simplicity and Overcome the Threat of Complexity

I have been lucky enough to have some amazing commercial experiences on both sides of the buying desk in FMCG, both within the UK and across Europe and the Middle East.  However, there has been one consistent theme that has been present across the businesses I have been fortunate to work for. Something that is an unrelenting and often unseen threat to productivity and motivation. Something that requires a constant focus to hold back.  That threat is complexity.

Complexity is a very generic term which can apply to the mindset of individuals and teams. Likewise, it can apply to a specific process or a total function, such as commercial. However, when we have experienced it we know what it looks and feels like.

Ever sat in a meeting that you were not sure you should be in, and didn’t get any benefit from, and there were no clear outcomes? That’s complexity in action. It’s the result of a functional or individual requirement, hijacking the overall business needs.  Or, it could also be a lack of clarity on what the business needs are.

Complexity Is a Creeping Tide Which If Not Managed Carefully, Slows Down Individuals and Teams

Complexity fills up everyone’s diaries, makes work less rewarding. It limits business output and can leave you cut off from what is truly important for your business – the ability to focus on delivering sustainable profitable growth.

We often do not even see it, or maybe we see it but feel it can’t be changed.  That complexity finds its way into the minds of the team, who may spend more time managing internal issues than is needed.  Additionally, people will naturally focus on the fun to do tasks and avoid the tasks which seem too complex or difficult but may be vitally important.

Complexity Is a Creeping Tide

‘Complex’ makes tasks ‘difficult’ and difficult is not what people naturally move toward.  We are all guilty of avoiding those difficult tasks at times; maybe because a form is too lengthy, or a process is too complex or takes too long to complete.  So why would we want to make life more difficult than it needs to be?  Going to work should be a rewarding and motivating experience, feeling you are contributing to the business, and that is rarely the case if progress feels like walking through treacle.

Complexity can be damaging to any business and can lead to a number of consequences, which may never be discussed openly within your team, particularly in larger organisations. This is because it is our natural, and particularly English, way to avoid admitting something is too difficult or complex. After all, we are paid to deal with the difficult stuff, aren’t we?

What Are the Potential Consequences of Complexity?

  • The slow pace of decision making.
  • Bureaucratic culture.
  • Teams that don’t feel empowered.
  • People not sticking to the process, thereby losing control and governance.
  • Too many meetings, due to lack of clear purpose & outcome (or business rhythm).
  • Long meetings due to lack of focus on the deliverables.
  • Poor customer perception of your business (and maybe you).

All of the above create frustration and lost opportunity.

Complex processes are often created to provide governance and control. An example is promotional management and approvals, a huge part of many businesses. I have worked in businesses that have promotional approval processes which are hard to complete, duplicate work, and have a one-week minimum turnaround time.  In FMCG, when dealing with a customer, we don’t have a week. The ‘F’ stands for FAST!  It was frustrating and hard to manage but created by a finance team, who realised what they needed and acted accordingly, instead of trying to fit into an effective business rhythm that would work for the overall business vision.

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There are 5 Main Drivers of Complexity:

  1. Mindset – Focusing on silo requirements instead of looking at the bigger picture.
  2. Evolving business requirements leading to evolving processes which become not fit for purpose.
  3. Lack of leadership will – If the board of a business do not back change, it is harder to deliver.
  4. Nobody is accountable for maintaining the business rhythm.
  5. Reliance on the dreaded ‘Trackers’ – A short term solution, and guaranteed to suck the fun out of any meeting, and a sure sign that you are living in complexity.

So What Do We Do About It?

Keeping things simple is surprisingly complex if someone is not accountable for it.  It requires consistent attention; turn your back for a few months, and it will have started to re-appear.  New forms may have appeared, more meetings added in, new function-driven requirements for the week or period, and changes would have occurred to the business rhythm.  Most terrifyingly for me, trackers would return, which have a shelf life of around 6 weeks, before a new one comes out because the last one didn’t achieve anything. This cycle continues, and momentum is lost.

Business rhythm is critical, all functions must play their part, and each part must form a coherent role in the whole picture, allowing the business to operate freely with pace and momentum.

Working in Harmony

I work with engines in my spare time and if the fuel, air, oil and coolant are not all circulating in the right places at the right time, there will be problems; if one part of the engine develops a serious problem and slows down, the issues could become terminal.  It is no different in FMCG. Each part of the team play their part, commercial, finance, supply chain, operations, if one develops a problem, there will be costly issues!  However to fix it, you can’t just focus on the broken bit, you have to look at the engine as a whole, and stress-test the system.

Getting to a position where you have an effective business rhythm requires personal accountability somewhere in the structure. This is incredibly rare still, despite the obvious benefits. This usually includes responsibility for the S&OP process too, where all functional activities for the period converge.  Ideally, you would have a business strategy. But, if that is not in place, a commercial and category strategy is still required, to give some direction to the business focus and ensuring simplicity can be added.

Key Actions to Add Simplicity & Go Faster:

  • Make processes quick, clear, and have a clear place in the periodic business rhythm.
  • Eliminate duplication of work – it is a motivation zapper.
  • Ask your teams for their suggestions for improvements – they might surprise you!
  • Continually ask yourself ‘How can I add simplicity?’

An effective commercial strategy allows effective commercial planning to be put in place. This feeds into improved forecast accuracy, allowing the finance, operations, and supply chain teams to be more efficient. Consequently, it fosters mutual trust, and this already makes work simpler.  This can be a lot of work to achieve but does not have to be complicated. It’s the details that matter here more than anywhere else in your business.  If this is not done with simplicity, it will fail to bring everyone on board and will ultimately fail. That is until someone else comes up with a new idea 6 months later and everyone tries to do that instead. It can be a never-ending cycle and is draining for people.  I know, it is something that drives me crazy!


Great commercial planning can lead to great operational planning. When you find the sweet spot, you’ll know it, as everything will click into place. Tasks take less time and results will improve effortlessly.  This is the start of adding simplicity to your work and to your business.  This is why I love organisational and particularly commercial planning so much. When it is done correctly, success comes easily. We all want that as an outcome, regardless of which industry you work with.

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments about simplicity at work. What are your thoughts if life at work feels complex?  I hope you enjoyed reading this article, and I would love to hear your feedback. Search for me on LinkedIn and let’s connect.

For further tips and information, you can take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Category Management and our Category Management YouTube Channel. Also, check out our award-winning blog to see more Category Management tips and articles.

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