With Martin G. Moore

Episode #222

The Power of Simplicity: Unlocking performance

We live in a complex world… a world where, as a leader, you have to find a way to interpret the complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and turn that into clarity for your people.

The ability to understand and absorb complexity, to strip it down to its most essential form, and then communicate that to others is one of the most valuable skills you can possess… and it’s a skill that can be developed over time.

There’s a big difference between making the complex simple and oversimplifying things that you don’t sufficiently understand… and to lead effectively, you need to know the difference!

In this episode, I explain how simplicity enables you to focus on the most important things, and show how to use it to offset the dilution effect of communicating through multiple organization layers. And I give you six key areas to leverage simplicity for your people that will pay you back in spades.

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Episode #222 The Power of Simplicity: Unlocking performance

We live in a complex world. The dynamics of our environment are constantly changing, and when we look at the pace of progress in technology, and the speed with which some of our centuries-old social norms are evolving, it’s hard to make sense of it all. One of the most difficult leadership tasks you have is to interpret the complexities, uncertainties, and ambiguities that your organization operates within, and to turn this into clarity for your people.

The ability to understand and absorb the endless complexity, to strip it down to its most essential form, and then communicate that to others, is one of the most valuable skills you can possess – and it’s a skill that can be developed over time. But it means that, rather than falling in love with the intellectual challenge that complexity brings, you need to adopt a different mindset that sees you constantly asking yourself, “What’s really important here? How can I break this down and make it even simpler?” 

If you can learn how to absorb complexity and then explain it in simple terms, it’s going to open the door to an untapped level of performance that you wouldn’t have thought possible.


I’m often asked by my friends and colleagues, “What makes the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast so popular, and how do you manage to stand out from the millions of other leadership pundits on the planet?” Well, if I had to mention one thing (other than the fact that my daughter, Emma, is a phenomenal CEO), I would say this: during my decades of leading at the most senior levels in a number of corporations, I learned to absorb extraordinary levels of complexity, and to then break that down into its most essential elements. I learned to simplify the complex in a way that could be understood, communicated, and then actioned. And this is how I approach every piece of content that I produce.

Those who’ve read my book, No Bullsh!t Leadership, will have noticed two really important pages right up front. The first is the dedication: “For every leader with the courage to be better.” 

The second, which is relevant today, is a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr:

“For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig. But for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity I would give my life.” 

The reason I thought it was so important to open with this quote is to highlight the difference between simplifying complex principles to make them digestible, and just oversimplifying them. One is profound, the other is superficial and trivial.

Much of the leadership dialogue today is around concepts that have been so oversimplified that they’ve lost their meaning. It’s easy to parrot off something you’ve heard, especially when it’s a virtuous message that sounds like it should be true. But there’s nothing like the reaction you get to something that’s been understood and described in a way that has real impact. When this is done well, it hits you like a pie in the face. I’m sure you’ve all had those moments in the past.

As my writing mentor, Dr. Nick Morgan used to say to me, “Your objective is to break down these extraordinarily complex nuances of leadership performance into their simplest elements, but no simpler.” Now, I’d like to think that the No Bullsh!t Leadership principles are deceptively simple, but incredibly powerful for this precise reason.

We tend to be able to tell the difference pretty easily from the profound nature of some statements as opposed to the oversimplified and trivial nature of others. Think of all the great quotes that stand the test of time: when you read or hear them, you don’t say to yourself, “I wonder what that really means?” You don’t say, “I wonder where I can get more detail on that?” And you don’t say, “Well, that’s pretty obvious.”

What you say is, “Yes! That has totally nailed it. It’s exactly what I was thinking, but I just couldn’t put it into the right words.” And this is the genius of a Simon Sinek: “Start with why.” Three words. So simple, yet so profound.


All the most powerful messages come from simplifying complexity. For example, a quote that traces its origins way back to Marcus Aurelius: “The best revenge is success.” 

Management guru Peter Drucker has plenty. One of my favorites: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” 

Even the slightly less pithy quotes like this one from Will Rogers, “The worst thing that can happen to you might be the best thing for you (as long as you don’t let it get the better of you).” 

Of course, we all listen and interpret information based on our existing filters, so we have to be aware of our inbuilt confirmation bias. I released a podcast episode on this a little while ago Episode 192: Avoiding Common Biases. If you haven’t heard this one, it’s definitely worth the listen.

Confirmation bias is pretty simple. If we hear something that accords with our own worldview, we’re much more likely to accept it on face value, even if it’s been oversimplified beyond any utility that it might have once held. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve read or heard something and immediately thought to myself, “That is absolutely true, but it’s completely useless.” 

If you’ve ever started a business or been promoted to a leadership position in a larger organization, you’ll know that things are never as simple as they first appear. Our natural reaction to this can be confusion and panic: “I don’t understand this. How do I communicate this? What if I get this decision wrong?” And the million other little voices in your head that are going to sow the seeds of doubt.

This is why oversimplifying can be so attractive. It relieves some of that pressure. You can learn to put a few words together to explain a situation to people, and you can rattle them off on cue. But there’s one fundamental problem with this approach: learning the words is easy, but as soon as someone asks a clarifying question, you’re not going to have the answers. Then, you may be tempted to turn into a Nike boss and say those immortal words, “Just do it.” 

I once had an executive working for me who suffered rather badly from this problem. She’d turn up to an executive meeting to present a paper, having been briefed by her team. She’d learned the words but didn’t really understand anything behind them. As soon as I, or one of her peers, asked her a question, the answer was always the same: “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” It didn’t take me long – although probably longer than it should have – to work out what was going on. And in this particular executive’s case, it proved to be fatal.

Don’t get me wrong, some things are extraordinarily complex, but as Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”


In my experience, simplicity goes hand-in-hand with focus. You’ve probably heard the expression “boiling the ocean”. This speaks to the lack of focus when you try to do too much, and ultimately achieve very little.

Do you remember as a child taking a magnifying glass and focusing the rays of the sun onto the smallest possible area you could? If you managed to get that right, you could actually burn your skin, and the budding playground sociopaths would perform this early science experiment on ants and small bugs. But if you pull the focus of the magnifying glass back ever so slightly to widen the area of the sun circle, it loses all of its power.

I’m getting some ripping quotes in today, and I love this one from the artist Hans Hofman: “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”

As a leader, value, performance and forward momentum all rely on having a crystal clear focus on the right things. So let’s just consider communication: for any decisions that you make and any actions you want your people to take, you need to communicate with them. This communication comes in a lot of forms: direct messages, emails, videos, face-to-face conversations. It happens in group settings and one-on-one meetings.

When you have to deal with multiple layers of leadership, you introduce new degrees of difficulty in communicating effectively. I often talk about the dilution effect: every layer that that message has to be communicated beyond its original source will cause it to lose some of its power. It’s never quite as clear to the next layer down. It doesn’t have quite the same context, and the ability to understand questions and answer them effectively isn’t quite as sharp. This is why it’s so important to communicate only the most essential elements of a message.

I think one of the great communication tools in business is the investment proposal. Now, an investment proposal lays out very clearly why a certain investment should be made:

  • What’s the strategic imperative for doing this?

  • What’s the required investment of resources (money, time, people, and assets)?

  • What’s the expected benefit that this investment will return?

  • What assumptions have we made, and how confident are we about those assumptions?

  • What could go wrong?

  • What are the risks and contingencies and what other options have we considered?

For a sizable investment, the written business case proposal could be well over a hundred pages long outlining these things in some detail, and it may have to be presented several times along the way at different stage gates before the project is formally approved to go ahead. So it’s easy to get lost in that complexity.

But I used to say to my guys, “You need to be able to write a summary of the business case on the back of a table napkin.” Simple.

  • What do we want to spend?

  • Why is that a good idea?

  • When, and where, will we see the benefit?

  • How confident should we be that this is all going to happen?

  • Why is this a better use of our resources than anything else we could be focusing on right now?

The simplicity that this brings enables the robust debate of big issues, allowing for challenge and comparison, without getting bogged down in the minutiae. It enables you to clearly articulate purpose, strategy, and intent.

One other principle that warrants a mention is that perfectionism hides in complexity. In case you’re wondering, perfectionism isn’t a good thing: it’s a barrier to progress. The pursuit of perfection sounds noble, but more often than not, perfectionism simply masks the fear of getting something wrong, and the tendency to procrastinate. It’s about finding warmth and comfort in irrelevant layers of detail.

Your leadership mantra has to be excellence over perfection. Otherwise you’re going to end up working tirelessly on something that doesn’t make any real difference. You’d be surprised how quickly you actually reach the point of diminishing returns, and you can spend a huge amount of energy focused on trying to solve for the extreme outliers, spending huge amounts of time, energy, and money to cover off on risks and issues that will most likely never happen.


1. Your core values and beliefs

You want to make it as easy as possible for people to understand what values you hold dear and what culture you’re trying to build. It’s so easy to build vision statements and core values lists that are full of management speak, and these generally end up being meaningless word salads.

I really like the simple but cheeky corporate value adopted and articulated by many companies. And this one originally came from the world dominating New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. It’s called the “No Dickheads Rule”. This doesn’t require further explanation – pretty much everyone knows what that means, and it stands on its own merits.

2. Your team’s work program

We spend so much time doing stuff that doesn’t matter. Which, of course, leads me to another great Peter Drucker quote: “The greatest waste of corporate resources is doing really well the things that shouldn’t be done at all.” 

Everything that I talk about in a leadership sense comes back to value. If you’re not delivering value, you’re not leading. So it’s critical to work out what creates the most value and focus only on that. Nail it. Capture the value, and don’t get distracted by low-value activity.

Let’s face it, we all try to do too much. But if you could simplify your work program so that you focus only on the most important value drivers and you delivered, say, the five most valuable initiatives, do you think anyone would care that you didn’t get to number 26? Of course not!

3. Crisis management 

People show their lack of resilience in times of crisis. They may be able to cope perfectly well when the going is good, but when the pressure really comes, you’ll find out what people are made of. So, in a crisis, keep it simple. Don’t dwell on the things you can’t control. Work out what you can influence and focus on that. If you solve the biggest problem in a crisis, often a domino effect follows pretty soon after.

It’s easy to get immersed in a catastrophe. Try to keep your team focused on the one or two key things that are going to bring you through to the other side.

4. Your working relationships 

As we know, there are often conflicts that need to be dealt with, but difficult conversations are made even more difficult by the fact that they lack perspective. We grab onto a raft of unrelated issues and problems and bundle them all in together. It’s so easy to find yourself in a situation where one problem bleeds into another and you allow it to taint everything you see of that other person – especially when it’s a peer. And this is just as true for suppliers and customers as it is for your boss and your own team.

If you find yourself in a conflict situation, think about the root cause of the conflict and deal with that. Home in on the core issues, not the minor annoyances, and you’ll find that quite often you can get to the root cause of a relationship issue, and resolve it before the situation snowballs, and the relationship becomes untenable.

5. Accountability

I’m massive on single point accountability. Having murky or vague assignments of accountability is incredibly damaging to your ability to deliver high quality outcomes. Simplifying the accountability structures and bringing clarity to who has decision making rights is the key to execution excellence. A lot of people say to me, “But Marty, isn’t collaboration important?” Of course it is, but it doesn’t give the accountable person the freedom to do whatever the hell they like.

Make it clear to everyone who’s cooking the chook. They’re accountable for consulting with the necessary people, solving problems, resolving issues, and making decisions as they relate to their accountability. The simpler you make this, the more likely you are to deliver on the things you set out to achieve.

6. Your language 

If you like to use elaborate language or management speak, then I want to tell you something you may not know: your team is very likely entertaining themselves during meetings by playing bullsh!t bingo. It’s a popular game that starts with a list of management clichés and consultant-speak. Every time you use one of these words, your people check it off the list. The first to get six in a row calls out “Bingo!” 

The language you use is absolutely critical if you want to convey complex concepts in simple terms. We’ve just spoken about the assignment and execution of accountabilities, so I use the expression “One head to pat, one ass to kick”.

Or when I talk about hiring the best people and making sure that everyone performs at the minimum acceptable standard, I say “It’s a lot easier to rein in a stallion than it is to flog a donkey”.

When people aren’t bringing anything unique to the table I say, “If you think the same as I do, then at least one of us is redundant… and it’s probably not me”

When I see a leader who’s afraid to take some difficult but necessary action, I entice them forward by saying Respect before popularity.

Finding simplicity amongst the wildly complex situations we often find ourselves in can be really difficult – and the higher up you go, the harder it gets. But, if you can train yourself to instinctively strip away the less relevant factors and focus on the most essential parts of any problem or situation, you’ll find that things become easier.

There’s a real power in simplicity that you discover more and more as time goes on. Once you master it, you become a source of strength for everyone around you. But of course, you should only do any of this if you’re interested in peak performance.


  • Ep. #3: Excellence Over Perfection – Listen Here

  • Ep. #6: The Psychology of Feedback – Listen Here

  • Ep. #10: Are Company Values Meaningless? – Listen Here

  • Ep. #14: Friendly, Not Friends – Listen Here

  • Ep. #19: Execution For Results – Listen Here

  • Ep. #22: Feedback Made Easy – Listen Here

  • Ep. #35: Driving Value From Your People – Listen Here

  • Ep. #42: First, Create Value – Listen Here

  • Ep. #43: People Follow Resilient Leaders – Listen Here

  • Ep. #44: The Standard You Walk Past is the Standard You Set – Listen Here

  • Ep. #53: Don’t Overdo Collaboration – Listen Here

  • Ep. #57: Challenge, Coach, Confront – Listen Here

  • Ep. #67: Simplicity and Focus – Listen Here

  • Ep. #77: Can Your Team Handle the Pressure – Listen Here

  • Ep. #78: Refereeing Your Leaders’ Disputes – Listen Here

  • Ep. #82: Leading Through Crisis – Listen Here

  • Ep. #104: Balancing the Load – Listen Here

  • Ep. #117: Managing Natural Tensions – Listen Here

  • Ep. #149: The Nike Boss – Listen Here

  • Ep. #163: Communicating Value and Acing Accountability – Listen Here

  • Ep. #169: The Pursuit of Perfection – Listen Here

  • Ep. #192: Avoiding Common Biases – Listen Here

  • Ep. #195: Understanding Fuels Communication – Listen Here

  • Ep. #197: Why Can’t We Be Friends? – Listen Here

  • Ep. #205: Leading in a Low-Accountability Culture – Listen Here

  • Ep. #221: Managing Stakeholder Relationships – Listen Here

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