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Leigh Dance has written, published and spoken extensively on many aspects of global legal services, at major global conferences and in business and legal industry publications worldwide, including The Wall Street Journal.  Click here for our extensive archive of past (we believe still insightful!) published articles.

Dance is author of Bright Ideas:  Insights from Legal Luminaries Worldwide, published by Mill City Press and available on Amazon.  Bright Ideas is a compilation of 23 original essays by leaders and influencers around the world.

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To Boost Performance You'd Better Keep It Simple

When you add complexity and uncertainty, what's the answer? If you say "more complexity," banish the thought! This is an excerpt and slight edit of my Global In-house column in American Lawyer's Corporate Counsel, first published in early October. I believe the ideas shared here are central to successfully manage change and avoid the standstill of uncertainty. We're well into the fourth quarter is here, arriving at the year-end push. It’s a perfect time for global in-house counsel to start making things simpler.

In your quest for excellence, many global legal and compliance leaders (and your providers) add more layers to already complex situations. Use simple themes and approaches instead. Your complexity can make fellow executives and your board feel even less sure. Key decision-makers don’t want more complexity; they want a path to progress.

Many of you work in multi-polar businesses, with hundreds of laws and reporting requirements in multiple markets. In every jurisdiction where you operate, you face officials that regulate with great inconsistency. But your business partners get that already. They still want your counsel to them to be more clear and less complex.

Step 1: Become indispensable by increasing clarity.

I like the story of my friend Michael O’Neill, former legal chief of Lenovo, Canadian Helicopter and other innovative companies, about a great lesson he learned as a fast-track in-house lawyer. The teacher: his European CEO. When O’Neill (let’s call him GC) was called to report on a complex problem, his team had struggled to hone down the issue to a 19-page report. O’Neill then summarized for the CEO in three pages.

The CEO glanced at the cover page and said, “So what’s the bottom line in a paragraph?”

GC: “Well, that’s really not possible, you see, because it’s important that you fully grasp the range of issues involved here, in order to act on our recommendation.”

CEO: “No, you need to really understand the various issues involved. And when you do, you can come back and give me your recommendation in one sentence.”

As Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said, “The path toward understanding almost always leads us first through complexity.” He was referring to an excellent book that inspired this article: Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, by Sull and Eisenhardt, published spring 2015.

Why simple beats complex and builds trust

Global in-house lawyers at every level: Question yourselves and your colleagues to help determine overarching principles and stakes. You can then guide your businesses in a more clear and simple way. Forget the absolutely certain response, which you usually can’t afford anyway. Your clients have little patience for long answers, and few situations merit turning over every stone. In global business that’s rarely possible.

We see many complex projects in business and government that fail. On LinkedIn, Oxford Univ. professor Bent Flyvbjerg wrote: “Solutions to fix project performance attempt to make our mental models of projects more lifelike. They try to capture more of the complexities, more of the detail. … yet [they] do not achieve results in increased predictability and accuracy of outcomes. Why? Because project, programme and portfolio leadership will not succeed by modelling complexity; they will succeed by understanding simplicity.”

Step 2: Use simple approaches to improve legal function performance.

After you use simplicity to help clarify things for your bosses, the next step is to apply simple approaches to increasing your function’s efficiency and value. And most importantly: to manage and sustain change.

Take a page from British Telecom (BT) Legal, winner of the Financial Times’s “Most Innovative In-house Legal Team” last fall. Under GC Dan Fitz’ leadership, BT used simple rules to improve services and simultaneously cut costs. BT Legal’s leadership team identified a central objective: Enable and protect value for BT.

BT Legal team members consistently explain that four focus areas were identified to achieve their goal.

1) The Customer (“to know our business inside out and outside in”)

2) Cost (“by managing our people by what they do, not who they do it for”)

3) Efficient (“by standardizing what we do” and giving people the right tools)

4) Simple (“by clarifying our role and accountabilities”)

There are lots of bells and whistles in BT’s approach. The important lesson here is the simple framework they created for what at heart was a very complex effort.

Use simple ways to say what you do and how you’ll do it. Take simple routes to explain a problem and how to address it. Find simple approaches to demonstrate your value, and to add clarity to messy problems. Forget what you’ve been taught. Pop quiz: When you add complexity and uncertainty, what’s the answer? Keep it simple.