To succeed at your workplace, you may need "simplexity." That's the handy term educational consultant Michael Fullan, former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, uses to drive change in educational systems across the globe. It means taking a complex issue and identifying the smallest number of key, alterable factors that would make a difference. Then focusing on those issues to gain momentum for the transformation you are seeking.
Organizations are complicated. They give rise to complexity, which can overwhelm us when we seek improvement. We need to narrow our focus to expand our impact. "Choose a few things that have leverage, and get into action," he says. When he was advising Ontario's government on educational reforms during the Dalton McGuinty era, he winnowed it down to literacy, numeracy, and high school graduation rates. Educational systems are massively complex. But those three items – complicated in themselves, of course – were the juice.
If you want to learn a new language, you could be overwhelmed by the vastness of your task. Start with 600 important words. Later, you can work on your pronunciation and grammar. But simplify at the start.
Simplexity is one of a series of interrelated ideas the prolific author tackles in his latest book, Freedom to Change.
At a time when many of us feel restrained by our organizations and external authorities, he urges us to see beyond the inchoate desire for "freedom from" – liberation from the burdens imposed by others.
He points to the haunting words in Me and Bobby McGee: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Freedom from can plunge us into despair, as Janis Joplin, who made those words famous, showed in her brief life. Freedom from can be happily intoxicating but Prof. Fullan notes it can be a trap. Once we gain freedom from, will we necessarily know, as an individual or organization, what we want to use that freedom to do?
In Australia, schools in some states can become independent, giving them more freedom from the state bureaucracies. But now there's talk of "learned helplessness," with school officials so used to being directed that they find it difficult to take advantage of their new flexibility.
In using that flexibility, simplexity should be top of mind. Also, attention should be paid to the balance between autonomy and co-operation. Too much autonomy can lead to isolation, which can be unhealthy. But if we bury ourselves in the group and jettison our individuality, group-think can occur. We need a blend. "You become yourself by figuring out what you stand for but get better by purposeful learning in groups," he noted in the interview.
He promotes connected autonomy. With schools, that involves giving more autonomy in exchange for commitment to collaborate: Building collaborative cultures within schools, participating in networks of schools or districts to learn from each other, and relating to state policies and priorities. Collaborative schools gain better results and have more engaged and satisfied teachers and students.
He suggests that rules in organizations have skyrocketed in recent years. We need more autonomy. For managers, using some ideas in Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman's Six Simple Rules, he advises:
Understand what your people do and why; give them the power and resources to foster co-operation; increase power by giving people more autonomy; boost reciprocity in the workplace; help people to understand what's ahead; and reward those who co-operate.
Feedback, too, is essential to growth, for individuals and organizations. We know that. But we don't like feedback and want to be free of it. We're also not good at giving it.
We need to be more attentive to feedback and willing to receive it. Effective feedback depends on the receiver. We need to be more open-minded. But those giving it also need to focus more on the receiver than their own immediate goals and adopt simplexity, not providing a barrage of advice.
Accountability, he says, can be the lifeblood of individual and organizational success. He prefers to focus on the notion of responsibility, both individual and collective. When he speaks to people, that's how they describe accountability – personally taking responsibility. But beware that if you are too judgmental, the people you work with will back off taking responsibility. Don't judge them too soon; give them time to live up to expectations.
Finally, organizations like to talk about taking good ideas and scaling them up, so they are more widely used. But he sees that as pushing things upon your staff and customers. Instead, he prefers the notion of diffusion: Communicating good ideas, and letting them spread, as individuals, showing autonomy and accountability, pick them up.
His ideas, which can seem abstract, are meant to promote reflection. But they also can have impact if, while seeking freedom from, we are aware of the need to figure out how to use that freedom. And in pursuing the goals that emerge, we need simplexity, connected autonomy, feedback, accountability, and diffusion.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter