How To Make Complex Things Simple

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I’ve just had to apply for a new passport.

It’s one of those things that you generally only do every ten years or so. It prompts you to ruminate on a few things.

Ageing: That old passport photo you were embarrassed about now looks like the ideal version of you. You shudder at the thought of what the 2026 edition will look like.

Life: Where have I been in the past decade, what experiences have I had, what have I learned?

Technology and design: Wow — the sheer hell of passport renewal has been replaced by….something quite simple.

Back in 2006 only 3% of us owned a smartphone. Today that figure is 71%. The phone is now the hub of our daily lives — transforming the way we interact with services.

It’s driven us to crave ever greater simplicity. Things we can do on the go. Complex tasks we can perform in minutes rather than hours.

Yet most of our organisations have not adapted to this.

Most of the problems we were set up to solve were relatively simple, but as organisations get larger, there’s more technology, more people, and more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures to deal with all these things. All of these factors together create a great amount of complexity.

For most organisations it’s easier to make a simple thing more complex than it is to make a complex thing more simple.

But our customers’ needs are not so complicated.

Making things simple for them is now a competitive advantage.

Back to the passport.

Mine came back in 8 days — 10 years ago it took about a month.

There are 6.7 million passport transactions in the UK each year — numbers most of our organisations couldn’t dream of handling. To understand how that’s happened it’s useful to look at one of the Government Digital Service (GDS) design principles:

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GDS have achieved this transformation by doing less not more. They’ve not added new options — or any bells and whistles — they have ruthlessly focused on user need.

The only apparent ‘innovation’ in passport services is that there is now a beta test where you can take your own photo using a smartphone — making the process fully digital. If you’re in the business of manufacturing those little photo booths you get in supermarkets you need to move on. You’re going the way of VHS.

However this simplicity comes at a price — there’s only one way to get a passport. If you want one — you’re going to have learn how. That means acquiring basic digital skills for a start.

This is a world away from how most of our organisations , particularly in the social sector, operate.

Doing less not more requires a cultural rather than a digital shift. The lesson from GDS is to find your ‘irreducible core’ — and then constantly refine and innovate against it. Accept we are not always the right people to solve the problem. Do what only you can do.

How do you make your company’s services simpler? You can start by simplifying your company.

Originally published at on September 9, 2016.

Written by

Innovation Coach and Co-Founder of @BromfordLab. Follow for social innovation and customer experience.

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