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Should Management Be Sophisticated?

We all like the idea of being sophisticated. Maybe we’ve heard that some company has a sophisticated compensation system, or a sophisticated recruitment process and we’d like to be like that. When we hear the word sophisticated, we expect to find something clever and complex. If that’s what you thought, then you got one out of two.


What sophisticated processes are usually like

Sophisticated management processes are clever. They can see through the clutter to recognize what is most important. They are clever enough to find ways to address that. We admire that kind of insight.

What sophisticated processes usually are not is complex. For example, a sophisticated recruitment process will build a great employment brand. When you ask what they actually do to build the great employment brand they say, “We keep track of who has applied and where they are in the process, then at each milestone we send them an email letting them know the status.” That’s it’s. It’s a wise thing to do; it takes discipline to do it, but it’s not a complex thing to do.

The dangerous allure of complexity

In university, we are taught complex ideas and we come to value our ability to deal with complexity—it’s what makes us special. It’s also natural to assume that to tackle a complex business problem, we will need a complex solution. Finally, there are not a lot of bragging rights in saying “Yes, we send an email to candidates to inform them of the status of their application”; it would be so much cooler to say that we’ve hired an MIT data scientist to create a machine learning program to do quantum something or other.

All this leads to a world where we think something sophisticated should be complex but that takes us in the wrong direction.

The world’s most sophisticated leadership development facility

GE’s leadership development facility at Crotonville was long the most famous leadership development facility in the world. People would come from far and wide to see the magic. They were usually disappointed. At Crotonville they covered core leadership topics (Visitors would say, “Anyone can do that”), they did their best to provide good material (Visitors would think, “of course”), and where possible they had leaders from GE teach the courses (Visitors would react, “Nice idea, we could do that too—if we wanted to.”). It was all pretty straightforward and yes other companies could do it too since it wasn’t complex—the thing was, other companies didn’t do it. GE was clever to recognize leadership training was important, and they worked hard to make their programs effective even when that meant pulling top leadership in to be instructors but there was no sophisticated magic in what they did.

The Takeaway

The key to successful programs is to be clever enough to see what’s really important and committed enough to ensure those important things are delivered effectively. We should not underestimate just how difficult it is to have that degree of cleverness and discipline. The trouble is that at the end of the day these “sophisticated” programs don’t look that special because they are not complex.

Many simple things don’t work because they are not clever enough to get at what is most important. Being simple is not enough. We need to develop the ability to distinguish between those cleverly effective simple programs and those that are just simple. We also need to stop imagining that sophistication means complexity and that complexity is something we should be proud of.


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