UX

How complexity & simplicity come together in the art of future HR design

written for insideHR August 2019

Simplexity is an emerging theory that proposes a possible complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity, and it has important ramifications for HR professionals looking to improve both the mechanics and dynamics of the workplace, writes Rob Scott

Many organisations are moving towards a digitised work environment. And while there are many facets to this transformation agenda, the one overriding message from many human capital thought-leaders around the world is the need for increased simplicity. Reducing complexity in HR processes and activities is seen as an elixir for Josh Bersin’s overwhelmed employee who is suffering from low engagement and negative trending productivity levels.

But does the adoption of a simplicity mantra just mean problem-solving and innovating by making things more logical and easier? That would be nice, but it’s a little more complex than that, it’s what we call simplexity, a term which describes a complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity.

Firstly, why do we have complexity in our HR processes? Well, we don’t typically aim to build complex outcomes, but over time we make modifications, often in a reactionary way to ensure continuity, to align with new technology, include a process owner’s ‘great ideas’ or to rectify ‘minor’ problems.

In many respects we don’t notice the ‘complexity accumulation’, just as we don’t realise our own weight gain until we’re confronted with a Facebook ‘Memories’ notification of our slimmer-self three years earlier.

“Trying to resolve processes which have evolved into complex problems is likely to result in a confusing mess”

Over time organisations spend a lot of effort and money trying to patch and rectify problems we can’t really solve. But at least the problem temporarily disappears right? This may last for a while, but eventually we reach an infliction point, where we move beyond a point of ‘functional complexity’, in other words a level of complexity which is still acceptable, but not optimal. We all know what the ‘chaos zone’ feels like and we often react with statements like “How on earth did we land up like this?”.

Simplexity graph

When we attempt to resolve problems within the ‘chaos zone’, often using simple logic and keeping other inputs or outputs constant, we end up with a confusing mess. Ownership, involvement and role clarity in understanding the problem becomes blurred. Re-imagining is often the best way forward in these cases. Painful, but gets you back in the right zone.

What we really mean by simplicity is the end-user experience, not the back-end design. It’s a dichotomous situation, which is why we refer to it as “simplexity”.

It’s a reality that if we want our organisations and people to adapt, grow, be agile and leverage new technologies such as AI, automation and Blockchain, then complexity by definition will increase. However, if we want efficiency and improved people productivity, then complexity from an experience perspective must decrease.

2 steps to simplexity
So, what do you need to do to manage this contradiction?

“Organisations spend a lot of effort and money trying to patch and rectify problems we can’t really solve”

Firstly, accept that effective simplexity is a function of our understanding, not our personal desire to solve a problem or introduce something new. This means we should engage the right skills who recognise the subtleties and nature of the complexity and who can unpack the problem in ways which allow others to give appropriate input and direction. Including the right design-skills can ensure you build the bridge between complex creations and simple experiences.

Secondly, ensure you don’t land up in the ‘chaos zone’. Make sure you constantly evolve within the ‘functional complexity zone’ and purposelessly block any silent creep into the chaos zone. Actions such as process effectiveness alerts, engagement results and continuous improvement cultures can serve as ‘chaos zone’ mitigation solutions.

Bottom line – simplicity is an experience, not necessarily the design.

Simplexity in a nutshell

  • While we all want process simplicity, it’s a reflection of the output or experience rather than the back-end design.
  • Simplexity is a dichotomous term because it simultaneously requires the adoption of more complex tools such as AI in order to progress, but at the same time needs the end user experience to seem simple.
  • Trying to resolve processes which have evolved into complex problems is likely to result in a confusing mess.
  • Achieving simplexity is a function of our understanding. We need to step back from what we don’t know and introduce the appropriate skills.

In Search of Imperfection

written for InsideHR

People leaders need to get the balance between technology, environments and human irrationality right in an increasingly digital world, writes Rob Scott, who explains that there are a number of considerations in optimising employee performance in the process

I recently attended a presentation by Alexander Kjerulf, the Chief Happiness Officer at Danish company Woohoo Inc. He makes the point that we very often, but incorrectly assume employees are happy at work when they have job satisfaction. According to Kjerulf, job satisfaction is what we “think” about our jobs, while happiness is what we “feel” about our jobs and work environment.

The employee performance conundrum
This was timely as I have been engaging with several leading-edge clients who are struggling to find appropriate ways of improving their employee performance and engagement levels. These companies have all the great benefits and perks such as free food, zone-out pods, wellness programs and gym membership which attract talent, they have tier-1 HR technology and collaboration tools, use and explore automation, robotics and AI to augment employee capability and remove humans from work which is done better by machines. Wow, everyone should be happy, satisfied and engaged. But they’re not.

Josh Bersin, a leading global HR technology analyst cites challenges with engagement, productivity and employee experience as one of four forces disrupting organisations today. In his presentation A Wild New World of HR Technology, he alludes to the lack of employee performance and productivity improvement, overwhelmed employees and marginal improvements in employee engagement despite all the great technology we continually introduce into our lives and workplaces.

“Wow, everyone should be happy, satisfied and engaged. But they’re not”

Why leaders need to empower people to improve employee performance
For several years, I’ve been driving the point that effective digital work environments are not about throwing more technology at people and problems. Unless you empower people to do more with the technology in a modified human behavioural way, you are likely to create the challenges Josh Bersin highlights.

Furthermore, as people leaders, it’s important that we figuratively step back to see the broader technical environments we are busy creating – not just from a software and apps perspective, but inclusive of the steel, concrete, glass, noise, space and technical gadgetry we combine to form our “happy” work environments.

Often these environments are created to serve rationality and optimisation but can unintentionally become “technology concentration camps” – an environment which is perfectly rational, but dreadfully unliveable.

In my view, we have become singularly focused on building environments and supporting processes using modern and emerging technical assets in order to attract, retain, engage and develop people. But we have overlooked the potential mismatch between these creations and the fact that people are not perfectly rational and don’t operate well in sterile, passionless environments.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a technology fan – it underpins our human desire to constantly progress and improve. However, we should realise as human beings, we are at our happiest when we can be irrational, make mistakes, share emotions, be spontaneous, indulge in passions, seek out the mysterious and have faith.

Allowing employees to be human
It was the French writer Ellul who said “The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made an enormous error in misunderstanding this aspect of human nature and presumed to exorcise all that was not rational.”

“As human beings, we are at our happiest when we can be irrational, make mistakes, share emotions, be spontaneous, indulge in passions, seek out the mysterious and have faith”

As we evolve our digital work environments, shifting tasks to robotics and AI away from human jobs which we are not good at, are less accurate at, or are slow to do in comparison to technology, we will be left with a ‘perfectly optimised’ human worker, but perhaps not a happy or engaged one. The ‘perfect’ technology environment may be producing the opposite effects of employee performance, happiness, engagement and productivity.

Our challenge as people leaders is to get the balance between technology, our environments and human irrationality right – building the perfect ‘imperfect’ environment is the goal. Those that succeed will be the attractive organisations of the future, sought out by talented people.

3 key insights: employee performance in the digital world

  • Our digital work environments are increasingly becoming optimised and rational, driven by technology. But when we put humans, who are not perfectly rational, into these environments, we are impacting engagement and happiness.
  • We have an abundance of technology in our personal and work lives, yet evidence suggests that employee performance, human productivity and engagement has only marginally improved.
  • Our desire to remain competitive organisations has necessitated leveraging modern technologies and shifting human tasks to machines and AI. Organisations who understand how to optimise, but at the same time not dehumanise will be the successful companies of the future.