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How Toxic Is Complexity? It Was A Sabotage Tactic In WWII

By Lisa Bodell – Global Leader on Culture Change Focused on Simplification and Innovation

Lisa Bodell Innovation Speaker The Sweeney Agency

In 1944, the United States’ Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) — forerunner to the C.I.A. — wrote a field manual for agents tasked with sabotaging enemy organizations in the name of American national security. Among its recommended strategies? Complication. The O.S.S. encouraged saboteurs to “insist on doing everything through channels”; and “never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions”; and “see that three people have to approve everything where one would do.”

What was a wartime maneuver 78 years ago is now just a typical weekday for most of us. And after interviewing thousands of employees and leaders across the world for my book Why Simple Wins, I’ve come to understand how even the most nimble companies devolve into tangled webs of complexity.

Here’s a two-sentence explanation: As an organization grows, teams proliferate and layers accumulate, increasing the distance between leadership and the frontline. Ideas and decisions slow and stall in every direction, decreasing productivity and innovation. According to Harvard Business Review, adding a manager creates about 1.5 full-time-equivalent employees’ worth of new work. In other words, the work of your newly hired manager plus 50% of another employee’s work responsibility.

A proven antidote to complexity is de-layering — as Bain & Company refers to it — which flattens your org structure to reduce complexity and improve efficiency. While de-layering may seem daunting, you don’t need expensive consultants to identify areas of opportunity. For reference, truly agile companies typically have only three management layers and even the largest ones shouldn’t have more than six. Look at each org within your existing reporting structure and honestly answer the following questions:

· Are there any redundancies? If so, where?

· Are employees siloed?

· Are more approvals required in your company than your main competitor?

· Could you increase the range of control for certain roles and functions without overwhelming employees? If so, where?

If you answered “no” to every question, congratulations: You can stop reading here. But if you replied with at least one “yes,” deep dive into that trouble spot. For example, if you see evidence of organizational siloes, consider whether leadership is failing to communicate a shared vision — and how to quickly address this oversight. Likewise, if approvals are a known source of bureaucracy, review workflow charts or accounting rules around expenses (or both) to identify both bottlenecks and opportunities to streamline.

De-layering in action can be seen in U.K. supermarket Tesco’s controversial decision in 2018 to flatten its org. The initiative was designed to “remove complexity and “deliver a simpler, more helpful experience for colleagues and customers.” Fast-forward to February 2022, when industry data showed the once-lagging Tesco now continuing to outperform its major rivals.

Battling complexity isn’t easy. But with an org structure that encourages communication and accountability, you’ll be well-positioned to keep it at bay. And when your entire company takes a simplified approach to operations, you can focus on beating the competition — instead of being sabotaged by complexity from within.


About Lisa Bodell

FutureThink CEO Lisa Bodell ranks among the Top 50 Speakers Worldwide and is the best-selling author of Kill the Company and Why Simple Wins. She’s a global leader on simplification, productivity and innovation, whose keynotes leave audiences inspired to change and arms them with radically simple tools to get to the work that matters. 

Bodell brings a compelling perspective to the sought-after topics of simplification and innovation to over 100,000 people each year. A thought leader and serial entrepreneur, her transformational message has inspired executives at top-ranked organizations such as Google, Cisco, Citigroup, and the U.S. Navy War College.  


To learn more about Lisa Bodell contact [email protected]

Derek Sweeney is the Director of Speaker Ideas at The Sweeney Agency  www.thesweeneyagency.com. For 15 years Derek has been helping clients find the right Speakers for their events. Derek can be reached at 1-866-727-7555 or [email protected]