Academics, Featured, Features, Opinion

Simplifying Complexity

Prof. Kevin Sharer

Beginnings are a good chance to think about objectives and plans, so let’s review what some of the big ideas here at HBS should be for you. For most of you those include learning to be a leader and critical thinker, meeting new friends, having new experiences, learning about yourself and perhaps positioning yourself for a new career or a faster, higher career arc than would otherwise have been available. These are all worthy goals, but let’s focus on the most important of these goals which include learning more about yourself, becoming a critical thinker and developing real leadership skills. This focus fits with the HBS mission of developing leaders who make a difference in the world. We in the faculty are very committed to that mission and hope you came here to pursue it too.

Leaders are most effective when they understand themselves, understand the context in which they operate and have a clear vision for the future and the skills and personal characteristics to inspire and help others achieve that vision. One critical aspect of that package is the ability to be a critical thinker and clear communicator. Our case methodology is a time tested and widely used approach to present complex, multi element, and somewhat ambiguous situations in which there are often many possible ways forward. Then a group of motivated and capable individuals working and conversing together can examine, discuss, weigh options and ultimately choose a way forward. In other words, cases at their best simulate the real environment you will face as you go forth in the world. By now as EC members, you have participated in hundreds of case discussions focusing on a variety of industries and circumstances. As RC members, you have seen enough to have a feel for the process and its challenges and possible rewards.

Let’s unpack the case study process a bit. At its best it is rigorous, logical, analytic, tested by debate and consideration of and comparison of alternatives and very thorough. Professors ask a range of questions which often include some or all of the following. “Tell me more, where is the analysis, what are the issues, what are the options, what is the next step, what does the data say, what are the alternatives, what are the risks, who are the key players and what do they need to do, how will we implement, what will success look like when , what are the key stakeholders and what will they think…..” whew! Facts, logic, alternatives, consequences, risks, objectives, success measures and more are all in the mix as the critical thinking and process proceeds. This all sounds good and necessary. Some people are whizzes at going very deep and wide to paint a picture of wonderful completeness, depth and range. But there is more, and stopping at the analysis of complexity in a thorough and complex way is a path to failure as a leader and implementor. This is a bold claim and for many not intuitively obvious.

That brings us to Jeff Bezos. Jeff Bezos and Amazon on very many measures have succeeded and continue to succeed on a scale and range that is very, very rare. Jeff is a deeply involved, hands on and thoughtful leader. In short, he is worth listening to and learning from. There is no doubt that Amazon is rigorous, passionate about getting it right, has a strong culture, and pays attention to the data and facts. They do their homework, think it through, debate and weigh alternatives and would pass our critical thinker tests. So, why does Jeff start each meeting with a “blank piece of paper” approach where he asks for a brief narrative to explain the meeting topic, logic for action and suggested next steps? He is clearly trying to force himself and his team to simplify complexity. There are other leaders who start meetings with a similar refrain that might be expressed as “so what is the big idea?” This is a disarmingly simple question, but often hard for the team to answer.

Why is simplifying complexity so powerful and challenging? At is core, simplifying complexity goes to the essence of the problem, action, or implementation. The truly knowledgeable have the ability to simplify complexity and explain it in ways that are accurate, able to be understood by the intelligent layperson, do not rely on jargon and do not come across as patronizing. This is a skill of the highest order and enormously useful to the leader. Leadership is about clarity, persistence, shared values and objectives and ultimately making things happen. Clarity is first on that list for a reason. Complexity and ambiguity breed confusion, lack of alignment, hesitation, confused goals and more. Some companies or people think explaining complexity in complex ways is a way to demonstrate their intellect, protect their position by not sharing insight, and resist true examination by senior leaders. Beware the expert who cannot simplify and explain. “Trust the experts” can be the road to ruin when the leader does not understand the logic, alternatives and possible consequences of the action chosen. Do not think you will advance by delivering mind numbing multi-page, multi chart power points with no big idea, core logic, action recommendation or risk management summaries. Organizations achieve best when the big ideas of purpose, strategy, responsibility, and success measurement are clear and unambiguous to all.

So, how might you develop the skills to simplify complexity while being right and ultimately believed? The first step is to realize and fully embrace the power of clarity. Remember those times you had a eureka moment or when you said aloud or to yourself “I’ve got it!!” In that moment you identified the essence, deep down knew you had an answer or insight and were more likely than not ready to act with purpose and confidence. The leader seeks to have the organization achieve this level of understanding and commitment. This is powerful stuff. Here are some suggestions to develop this skill while at HBS. First, be a thorough, capable and experienced critical thinker employing all the tools you learn in class and outside. This skillset is foundational and absolutely necessary on the path to clarity and simplicity. If you do not do this and instead rely on instinct, received wisdom or “how we do things here” you will at best only be a glorified hip shooter. Your “clarity” will not withstand examination or persuade anyone. As you do your case work, try to write no more than a paragraph on why you believe the course of action you propose is valid. Be able to answer “why do you believe that” using facts and logic. Be able to answer “what are the uncertainties in your proposal and how could you resolve them” “what are the risks in your proposal and how should we manage them” “what is the upside if we do this and when will it be achieved and why valuable?” You get the idea. Clarity invites questions of logic and implementation. Be sure you can answer them. Senior leaders who are most effective are masters of this skill. These messages at their best can inspire, motivate, align and be of enduring significance. Simplifying complexity is not easy, but when done properly can be one of the most powerful tools in the leaders toolbox.


Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.

October 18, 2018

About Author

Kevin Sharer


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