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How to See Through a Business Fog

One of the most frustrating (and sometimes terrifying) aspects for any modern employee or customer is the lack of simplicity in practically everything businesses do these days. Organizations today are fiercely competing with one another to attain complexity, while at the same time loudly claiming to be making things simpler for everyone. Complexity is adored, worshipped and organizations behave as if every employee has been hypnotized by some mysterious force to shun simplicity. This has resulted in every modern business suffering from complicated project plans, complex paperwork, insane laws, tedious procedures, cumbersome business transformations, jargon spewing executives, etc., that engulfs everything right from the janitor's department to the CEO's office. Even the most trivial of tasks is made difficult and daunting. In layman terms, modern business is like walking through a thick smoke or a business fog that does not impair vision, but simply numbs the brain. This fog turns every employee into a living zombie who becomes oblivious to the pain of complexity. Unfortunately, the complexity you see has evolved over the years due to many sane and insane reasons and keeps growing by the day.  Nevertheless, while you may have no say in reducing the fog of complexity due to numerous reasons, you can still cultivate a special power to see through the fog. The five methods described below can help you see beyond the visible pomp and ceremony, see clear patterns from chaos and see things that other are unable or unwilling to see.
 
1. The first lesson to see through fog is to be dismissive of hype, hot air, business jargon and fluff when projects, jobs, etc., are being described. Seek simplicity even if it is not fashionable or popular. Just because everyone around you has gone crazy, one need not join that bandwagon to survive. Concentrate only on the practical, real work necessary. It is important to note that the glamorous job descriptions many executives paint themselves with is very different from the ordinary (or even mediocre) work they will be doing in reality. This is extremely common - bin men are now Waste Disposal Engineers. It's not so much a step forward as two steps back - now we're less likely to be able to discern that someone is, say, a free poker games pro because they're called a Professional Financial Risk Manager. It's irritating, and the trend is spreading. Many years ago I was accidentally involved in a prestigious multi million dollar technology project that covered many countries. My accidental involvement was because a few key staff members had suddenly quit and I was thrown in due to business urgencies. Though I had a generous experience in doing technical stuff, the hype and pomp of the project made me feel like a lamb among wolves. Everything about the project was awesome, or so it seemed. Every other day I had to endure a slow lingering torture by PowerPoint presentations that spewed slide after slide, graph after graph, table after table and business transformation agendas by jargon speaking executives. I would sit there bewildered and embarrassed to admit I don't understand anything. However, when the actual project and the hands on work started all the artificiality and terror vaporized. The whole project was simply about installing a bunch of computers, half a dozen softwares and a series of data transfers from the old computers and old softwares in the various international sites. And that was no rocket science even for an average techie. So this is how many projects work in modern organizations. Once the hype and hoopla is broken it is usually nothing but an emperor's new clothes story inside.
 
2. The second lesson is to know the difference between difficulty and complexity. Few people realize that difficulty is different from complexity.  Difficulty is a natural thing based on the task and depends on the effort involved. But complexity is a man made thing, an aura of hype deliberately invented to make the task look glamorous, impress others and separate the royals from the commoners. Difficulty is unavoidable, but complexity is optional. For example Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language (now almost extinct) was deliberately made complicated so that only the elites were eligible to learn it. There were too many do's and don'ts, too many rules, and tedious methods of learning intended to keep the ordinary folks out. So the common folks invented their own simple languages and thus rejected the complexity of Sanskrit. Similarly, many classical arts worldwide have suffered the same fate. In a similar way, you should reject complexity and seek simplicity. 

Coming back to the business world, many business decisions, even billion dollar ones, can be easily taken if one has the realistic experience to summarize it into a few pages containing the absolute essential details. But if it is mandatory to go through the rigmarole of "one method fits all" flamboyant process of fancy Hollywood type presentations, endless meetings, status reports,  jargon filled complex paperwork outlining all the unwanted and unviable alternatives, etc., then the same decision now becomes complicated and tedious. 
 
3. Learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. Be like an elephant. It has been said elephants can detect the slightest amount of unusual noise among the countless noise and din created by other animals around. Similarly, you should learn to suck only the essence and filter out all complexity. Remember if a million people do a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. Often you can reduce any project, no matter how big or complicated, into a simple short summary that contains all the necessary details to take a correct decision. For example, a fifty page report may really contain only five pages of useful information that is needed to take a decision, while the remaining forty five pages could just be cosmetics, bells and whistles.
 
4. When something appears complex, don't be afraid to ask elementary questions, dumb questions or even absurd questions. If you know the subject matter well and it still appears complex, then don't portray an illusion of understanding. Different people understand the same thing from different angles.  Cultivate a "Show me how or let me do it" habit. Think of hypothetical situations where you have to do everything yourself or teach everything to someone else. Think in terms of shopping lists and the real work necessary. Learn to read the fine print. The fine print is where the truth is hidden.

5. It is always the insecure and clueless managers who create complexity as Jack Welsh had observed in his quote, "Insecure managers create complexity. Frightened, nervous managers use thick, convoluted planning books." Too many managers avoid learning the work hands on, or at least an essential percentage of it. They never bother to understand the "Nuts and bolts" or roll up their sleeves to get involved. Instead they run their departments from a high level by viewing the world through status reports, endless meetings, email wars, metrics, statistical gymnastics, asking tough questions, etc. By refusing to learn or get involved they distance themselves from understanding any practical issues and difficulties of a department, and very soon everything they do becomes automatically complicated, which gets spread around like an infectious disease.
 
Finally, we can conclude this article with a quote by Ernst F Schumacher who said, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. But it takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction."

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