Tag Archives: Cybernetics Systems Thinking

Yves Morieux: Smart Simplicity

Yves Morieux speaking on stage.A wonderful discovery today, “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify,” a TED Talk by Yves Morieux. Morieux is a senior partner in the Washington DC office of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG)  and director of the BCG Institute for Organization. He studies how changes in structure can improve motivation for employees.

“Smart Simplicity” uses six key rules that encourage cooperation to solve long-term problems. Not by just reducing costs and increasing profit, but also by maximizing engagement in all levels of the organization.

The focus of Morieux’s work is very compatible with sociocracy. He stresses collaboration over rule-making, self-organization over central authority,  and effective action over complex, multi-layered planning.

A 350˚ Increase in Complexity

In his TED Talk, Morieux first critiques the increasingly complex designs for business plans that might have 5 headings with 25 subheadings under each one, resulting in 125 cogent topics, each with numerous subcategories. Combined with an equally complicated workflow and organizational structure chart, it produces a brilliant, mind-numbing, and wholly unimplementable plan. Impressive in good graphics but hopeless in practice.

The need for an emphasis on smart simplicity is supported by a study done by BCG that reported:

We’ve created an “index of complicatedness,” based on surveys of more than 100 U.S. and European listed companies, which measures just how big the problem is.The survey results show that over the past 15 years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed in each of those firms has increased by anywhere from 50% to 350%.

A wonderful part of the video is when he recites an example of such business plans with their myriad of meaningless words. He has the memorization skills of an actor and the facility of a professional fast talker so he got himself through it without notes and within 12 minutes. If he had a teleprompter, speaking that fast would have burned out its circuits.

Feedback Loops & Decentralization

Morieux emphasizes that self-organization is dependent on feedback loops to make decentralization work. In a Harvard Business Review article from 2011, he says:

There are six smart rules. The first three involve enabling—providing the information needed to understand where the problems are and empowering the right people to make good choices. The second three involve impelling—motivating people to apply all their abilities and to cooperate, thanks to feedback loops that expose them as directly as possible to the consequences of their actions. The idea is to make finding solutions to complex performance requirements far more attractive than disengagement, ducking cooperation, or finger-pointing. When the right feedback loops are in place, cumbersome alignment mechanisms, ranging from compliance metrics to the proliferation of committees—can be eliminated, along with their costs, and employees find solutions that create more value.

This is has been an important point for theories of circular organization since the 1970s and for understanding sociocracy. Feedback loops are necessary to implement decentralization and impelling cooperation and self-organization.

Morieux’s Smart Rules

  • Rule 1: Improve Understanding of What Coworkers Do
  • Rule 2: Reinforce the People Who Are Integrators
  • Rule 3: Expand the Amount of Power Available
  • Rule 4: Increase the Need for Reciprocity
  • Rule 5: Make Employees Feel the Shadow of the Future
  • Rule 6: Put the Blame on the Uncooperative

For More: Two Readings

From the Harvard Business Review,
“Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You.” September 2011.

Book Cover: Six Simple RulesMorieux’s book at Amazon: Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated. 2014

There is also a French edition with a much better title: Smart Simplicity: Six règles pour gérer la complexité sans devenir compliqué (2014).

Morieux divides his time between leading research and advising senior executives of multinational corporations and public-sector entities in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific on their strategies and organizational transformations. He has been featured in articles on organizational evolution in Harvard Business Review, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Le Monde.

What Are Systems?

Q. So what are systems and why do a sociocratic organizations meet that definition?

A system is a grouping of parts that share a common purpose. Organizations are systems of people who share a common purpose or aim.

A Grouping of Parts

The parts must be defined. A lawnmower doesn’t work with just any old part. It works because specific parts do specific jobs. All parts can expect specific behaviors from other parts.

In order for human organizations to accomplish their purpose, their parts must also be defined. When people are making decisions together they need to know who they are making decisions with, otherwise there is no dialogue or conclusion. The parts can’t depend on each other when action is necessary if they don’t know who they are. Making decisions with anyone who passes by doesn’t work very well.

A Common Aim

A common aim is what makes parts a group. Otherwise the parts would exist randomly and have no focus.

When you find a common aim, you know you have a system, not a random assortment of parts or people. The aim may be very simple like coming together to watch movies on Friday nights or play marbles on Saturday morning. Or complex like a city government.

Formal or Informal

The system may be informal as the marble playing on Saturday mornings is likely to be. The regular players will have worked out a pattern of play and rules even though they are not written or consented to by other players. There will be leaders, formally chosen or informally recognized who “rule the playground.” Without formalized agreements, the  group will not become more complex. The aim will be remain simple.

A city government has a complex aim and is a formal organization. It has written rules to which its parts have consented. Although those who have interacted with city governments will also recognize an informal system of getting things done inside the formal organization’s rules.

Open or Closed

Systems can open or closed. An organization with no interaction with the outside world is closed and will die because it doesn’t have a source of energy.

The aim provides both the connection between the parts and between the system and the environment. Interactions with the larger environment bring new energy in the form of new people and financial resources.

Sociocratic Organizations as Systems

Sociocratic organizations are designed as open, formal systems that pay close attention to defining aims and measuring their progress toward their aims. Consent, coherent structure, and double linking between groupings of parts creates an organization that is self-organizing and in harmony with its environment.


Satisfice: Satisfying & Sufficient

Satisfice (a portmanteau of satisfy and suffice) is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy and not to find an ideal solution.

The word satisfice was created by Herbert Simon in 1947. He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize: we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes, we can rarely test all outcomes with sufficient precision, and our memories are weak and unreliable. A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations but attempts to find a solution that is satisfying and suffices in addressing the issue and moving forward.

The Costs of the Optimal Solution

The alternative is to continue to search for a probably elusive perfect solution. A satisficing strategy may often be near optimal if the costs of the decision-making process itself, such as the cost of obtaining complete information, are considered in the decision.

The Principle of Good Enough

Sociocratic literature and trainers often use the Principle of Good Enough to mean satisfying. In software development and systems design, good enough means that a solution meets the clients needs even though a more capable solution is available. But often good enough is perceived negatively  as adequate, acceptable, tolerable, rather than the more positive terms satisfactory, respectable, reasonable, and all right.

In situations where a group is striving for optimal solutions and achievements, good enough may be met with disdain. The standard of satisfying might be more acceptable since it also sets a clear standard. The solution must not only suffice; it must be satisfying.

Often the characteristic that produces satisfaction is the ability of the solution to help a group more forward.