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The Thief of Time: Complexity

By John L. Mariotti

Time. Nobody has enough of it. Everyone wishes they could have more. It flies by, and once gone, can never be recovered. It is the one truly perishable resource. The workdays fill up and overflow. Other commitments close in and personal time goes away. Those who suffer from this are truly victims of the Thief of Time – complexity – which afflicts every person in every organization.

Complexity adds to the list of unread e-mails, unheard voicemails, interminable meetings and mountains of minutiae. It’s time to apprehend this Thief of Time, and stop its relentless damage.   To stop it, you must first understand how complexity strikes and where it comes from.

Much of the complexity accumulates due to the fact that we are part of the information age. Another large source of complexity is the pursuit of high growth in low growth markets. The continuous pressure for growth leads to proliferation of customers, products, markets, and so forth. This proliferation, while done with the best of intentions, leads to even greater floods of information.

How can you stop complexity … this Thief of Time? The answer is deal with the two places where the thief steals time and money.

Growth By Proliferation: First let’s address how companies seeking growth drown themselves in self-induced complexity. Most developed markets are growing slowly, and companies commonly make the mistake of chasing growth at higher than market growth rates by proliferating products, customers, markets, locations and facilities. This problem grows because none of today’s “accounting” systems properly “account” for where and how complexity is “hiding,” while it is “stealing” time and money. Thieves are sneaky, and this one is no exception. It hides in accounts where there is clutter such as variances, allowances and deductions, obsolescence, administrative overhead, and so forth.

At the end of the month, the quarter or the year, the time is gone forever, and most of the profits are gone, too. The thief has struck again, yet nary a trace of evidence remains as to what happened. What steps can you take? Here are five guidelines …

1) Prioritize: Do what’s most important, first. Choose what “not to do” and make time for what must be done.

2) Focus: Focus on those tasks that make big differences. Devote the resources to get them done.

3) Sort & Simplify:  Sort products and customers, sales and profits in order of descending annual value, and then simplify by cutting the losers at the bottom that add cost but no profit. Increase attention to the winners at the top; then either promote and cultivate – or demote and drop – what’s left in the middle.

4) Find It; Fix It; Use It or Lose It: Seek out complexity in all its usual hiding places and either get rid of it, or restructure your processes to turn complexity into a competitive advantage.

5) Keep the Thief Out: Devise new ways (and metrics) to track and detect complexity when it is creeping back, as it certainly will.

Drowning in Data—Protecting What’s Proprietary: This thief is so much more troubling now than in the past because of data overload, drowning everyone in work, and inundating them with too much information. Much of it was neither asked for, nor wanted and there’s no time to process or use it.

In the past, economists classified wealth in terms of exclusive rights to land, labor and capital. Not any more. Now wealth is knowledge and knowledge is derived from information; yet information cannot be easily controlled, and seldom belongs exclusively to anyone. Because information can be shared freely, the “wealth” that might be derived from it is lost because so many have access to it.

How can the Thief of Time be stopped in this complex new information era? How can the exclusivity of data and information be protected without adding more complexity? First, maintain appropriate secrecy and privacy practices, which can keep information out of the public domain and out of the hands of competitors—at least temporarily. Use intellectual property laws to add another layer of protection. Apply modern data security solutions to further thwart the thief and eliminate two of the greatest sources of information complexity; overuse/abuse of non-secure communications and illicit practices such as spam, hacking, phishing, and social engineering.

Here’s several more ways to thwart the thief, to manage the overuse/abuse, to inhibit the illicit practices, and to protect your information’s security and exclusivity:

  • Stop using the “reply to all” selection on e-mail. This cuts down the flood of e-mail, and stops the embarrassing or damaging ones from going to an unintended recipient. It also reduces the likelihood of confidential information leaks by inadvertent e-mail distribution.

  • Insist that voicemails begin with the topic, the intent and the action desired. Then limit voicemail boxes to 20 seconds duration. People will leave shorter messages after being cut off a few times.

  • Clean out those mailboxes regularly—and avoid ill-advised e-mails and voicemails on sensitive matters. Those can become “smoking guns” in legal disputes.

Once these distractions – which act as the thief’s “cover” – have been addressed, then protecting valuable information comes next:

  • Protect IT systems privacy and security using the best available tools: encryption, firewalls, spam filters, backup systems, etc. Some hackers are very creative, some “vandals” and some steal information for profit. Learn the favorite tricks used in “phishing” and “social engineering” and alert employees as to how these tricks are used. They steal both your precious information and your precious time, while adding enormous complexity to your workload.

  • Develop a well-conceived Intellectual Property protection system and the processes to support it. This includes what kind of information to keep confidential and how to do that. It also includes training in appropriate behaviors at trade shows and in public places, where overheard conversations can result in critical information leaks.

There you have it; two straightforward approaches to deal with and apprehend that Thief of Time—Complexity. One requires prioritization and focus, the other is preventative and protective—a series of virtual locks that keep out thieves and complexity.

Now it’s up to you – and the management of your company – to keep the thief out. The beauty of driving out complexity and safeguarding your information is it frees you to devote your time to innovation; new products, improved value and better customer service, which will make you more effective, and your company more profitable.   And in the game of business, profit is how the score is kept …and winning is a lot more fun than chasing complexity and its problems.

Read other articles and learn more about John L. Mariotti.

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