How Managers Can Reduce Complexity on Their Teams

Ask anyone who has ever worked on a team of people (i.e., most of us) whether they’ve ever felt that the team’s processes and operations were overly complex and you’re likely to hear a resounding “yes.” After all, if you’re doing work yourself, it’s generally pretty straightforward. But add more people to the mix, and it’s not long before you’ve got processes, procedures, decision-making protocols, and bureaucracy. And of course, even though “bureaucracy” is often used as a dirty word, the reality is that you need some of this when you’re managing a group of people, or you’ll end up with chaos: people working at odds with each other, work being duplicated or not done at all, and important details being missed. Moreover, we live in an increasingly complicated world, with more sophisticated customer demands, ever-proliferating products, and constant pressures to get more done, usually with less. In that environment, it can be hard to find ways to streamline and reduce the types of complexity that can lower your team’s productivity and stand in the way of getting things done.

But managers can use these four tactics to reduce complexity on their teams – and make their teams more effective as a result:

1. Be relentlessly committed to setting and meeting clear goals. It sounds simple, but far too often managers don’t lay out clear, targeted goals for their team to meet and instead simply tread water or get pulled in too many directions instead of figuring out what the most important things for them to achieve are and focusing there. Clear goals can cut through the noise and make it easier to see what matters most – what must be done in order to have a successful year (or quarter or whatever your goal period is).

2. Talk explicitly about what not to do. Clear goals only have power if you’re disciplined about working toward them – which in some cases will mean saying “no” to other activities. If you say yes to anything that sounds like a good idea – or if you let your staff do that – your focus will dissolve, your time will be spent less effectively, and you’ll find your team pulled in too many directions and trying to juggle too many projects. Instead, be rigorous about asking what the best uses of your team’s time are – and deliberately choosing not to do things that don’t fall in that category.

3. Be clear about roles and who is in charge of what. Getting multiple perspectives can be a good thing, but too often it devolves into confusion when people aren’t clear on their roles and projects languish for lack of a clear driver or decision-maker. In projects where multiple people are playing roles, be vigilant about articulating who should play what role throughout the work – who should own the project (with overall responsibility for its success), who should act as a helper to the owner, who should be consulted, and who must approve it.

4. Invite and welcome input from your team on how to streamline processes. Often your staff members will be better positioned than you are to spot inefficiencies and ways to streamline your systems. But you won’t hear about it unless you create an environment that welcomes and rewards that kind of input. For instance, try asking, “If we were to stop doing one thing this year, what should it be?” and “What’s one system we have that makes it harder for you to get things done?”

How to you reduce the complexity on your team?














Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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