Around the world, thanks in no small part to a disenfranchised electorate, we are seeing a resurgence in politicians profiting from populist ideology. That is to say, offering overly simplistic solutions to complex problems, thus enabling them to appear as someone who can, “get the job done,” and tarring their opponent with the incompetence brush. The reason for this appeal is obvious – we all want to think that complex issues can be solved with a single, powerful solution that nobody has thought to use before. The downside of course, is that it’s easy to talk of simple solutions to complex issues, until the solution needs to be implemented, and the realities of trying to open an envelope with a chainsaw become apparent.
The same is true in business strategy, or perhaps the issue of populism is even more prevalent. Experts, consultants and authors have all contributed to a dictionary’s worth of quotable sayings, new systems and processes and “the one way of doing things.” As a result, expert marketers have been able to sell simplistic and all-encompassing solutions time and again, and even achieve some level of fame without the requirement for a track record of proven success. Often, even when there is success, the process itself is watered-down. Jan Carlzon, the Swedish businessman credited with the turnaround of Scandinavian Air (SAS) spoke of “Moments of Truth,” the key moments in your business which make or break your business. Implementing this strategy, including identifying moments such as the time it takes for baggage to get from the plane to the baggage carousel, and planes taking off on time, contributed to making SAS the most punctual airline in Europe, and a success story surrounded by an industry of failures. The strategy was shared around the world, with books, consultants and reputable business publications all jumping on the bandwagon. The issue was that this wasn’t the entire reason for SAS’s turnaround. A full corporate restructure, rebrand, extensive and systemic strategic change and a redefining of what the organisation did from baggage handlers through to the board room were just a few of the tough, and complicated changes made by Carlzon and his team. But complex decision-making and hard truths don’t make for compelling reading, or easily saleable solutions.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t occasional simple remedies to complex problems – but most commonly, these solutions are only applicable to the environment in which they are applied. For example, just because enhancing a particular process in a manufacturing environment increased profitability by 410%, doesn’t make the solution applicable to every other business. Never was this attitude more prevalent, than in the late 1990’s when banks and professional service firms attempted to duplicate lean manufacturing initiatives – essentially turning people in customer facing service roles, into cogs in the profit wheel, ending the days of speaking directly to your bank manager.
In politics as in business, the seduction of a quick fix will always exist, and the voice of reason is often seen as a doomsayer. But it’s important that every initiative is scrutinised, not simply on overall business objectives but also on its impact on every part of the business it could come into contact with. Even seemingly small changes, can have an impact in unexpected places. Often it’s the most simple solution that causes the most complex issues.