Simple hard vs complicated easy

by Matt Grimshaw
May 4, 2017

Last month, I had the privilege of being invited to a session facilitated by Valerie Iles. Valerie’s a management innovator who’s spent her working life in and around the NHS. To celebrate her 65th Birthday and her transition into ’semi’ retirement, Valerie brought together a group of people from her network who shared her passion for challenging prevailing management orthodoxy.

During the session, Valerie shared some of the key principles and concepts that have underpinned her work. It would do Valerie a huge disservice to try and distil this into a single blog (so expect more Valerie inspired blogs to follow), but one idea stood out as especially insightful: the simple hard vs the complicated easy…

“The complicated easy”: complex, analytical tasks that are challenging, but often intellectually satisfying  exercises. Organisations tend to focus their attention and resources on these exercises, but they don’t directly result in meaningful change.

“The simple hard”: conceptually simple activities (like having a conversation), but which often need character, courage, discernment and practical wisdom to make them happen. It’s the simple hard activities that make the complicated easy work in practice.

I really like this dichotomy and I think it’s an insightful diagnosis of where things often go wrong in organisations. In my experience, most of the seemingly intractable cultural problems facing organisations, the lack of progress on change initiatives or the limits on productivity and organisational effectiveness, stem from a failure to do the simple hard.

When things go wrong, it’s often because people haven’t had the courage, commitment or ability to follow through on the simple hard activities needed. They’ve avoided difficult conversations, they’ve not communicated honestly or clearly, or they’ve simply not delivered on time.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Valerie’s work she has an excellent website which you can find here.

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