Blog Feature
Tony D'Amelio

By: Tony D'Amelio on May 31st, 2024

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Simplifying Work: Unlocking High-Performance Culture With Lisa Bodell

Every leader knows how important culture is.

LISA BODELL approaches creating a high-performance culture from a different angle. “If organizations get the work right – they get the culture right,” she says.

Leadership, culture, innovation, mental health, profitability – they’re all connected by how we spend our days.

Lisa should know. Her company, FutureThink, is the world’s leading provider of simplification & innovation tools and training for professionals. Lisa has seen the productivity companies unleash when people are set free to do the work that truly matters.

I sat with Lisa and asked her six questions about why it’s so important to banish complexity and embrace simplicity.



What is it that's keeping people from doing their best work at work?

That's a great question. When I ask audiences, what do they spend their day doing, I am never surprised by the answers, because they're incredibly consistent. Every audience I talk to says the same things: Meetings and emails 100% of the time. So, what's holding them back from doing their best work is the amount of unnecessary things they have to do. They either have too much work, or they have too many things that are getting in the way of doing it. And what we want to do is not just get rid of the complexity that they wrestle with every day, but the unnecessary complexity that gets in the way of doing the work that they were hired to do in the first place. And I think that's really important because we underestimate how much impact that would have.




You call complexity, and I love this term, “invisible waste.” You say it’s “work without benefit,” and I love that characterization, too. So, what's the solution?

You know, I was doing some work at Pfizer. And what was so interesting is they had just done an employee survey, and this was before COVID. They had ranked high at being innovative. But what they ranked lowest, and this was shocking, was ability to get things done. And Albert, who was the CEO at the time, he looked at this, and realized there was a big gap in perception. They were telling people, they were innovative, so they believed it. But the fact was outside of, well, people that were in R&D, nobody was able to get anything done. And that was a huge issue. For them, being successful and being able to compete, they couldn't move fast enough.

The answer to all this is getting rid of – valuing subtraction as much as we value addition. And we don't really think about that at work. Being able to simplify is an incredible initiative for people because it saves money and time, of course, it makes people more productive. It allows them to question work that just isn't adding any value anymore. It teaches them that they don't always have to be on defense waiting for things to happen or being ready to react. They can be on offense, because they've gotten rid of the weeds that are just getting in the way of being able to get things done.

When we got done doing a project with Pfizer and their simplicity champions, we did this whole project on killing stupid rules. It was cathartic, right, allowing people to get rid of the waste, and create this space to think. One of the senior participants in the room said, “I really underestimated the amount of stuff that was dragging me down every day, and how much that impacted my ability to not just feel fulfilled at work, but to be able to move with speed and make an impact.” I thought that was really important – simplicity lets you make an impact on things that are important.


 So, on the bigger question then, simplicity obviously impacts people individually, but what is the impact of simplicity on organizational culture?

I get this question a lot. What role does simplicity play in culture? And I believe that culture is the work we do every day. I believe that simplicity drives your culture. We spend so much time thinking about what I call cultural aesthetics, the bonuses that we have, and the flexibility. There's a lot of quirky benefits and team-building exercises that we give people to try and retain them. But no amount of team-building exercises, forced fun, or benefits matter if people can't get to them. Or if they're getting in the way of work. If you get the work right, you get the culture right. And people stay.

So think about it – when you go home at night and somebody says, “How was your day?” usually what people are doing is just reading off their calendar. They’ll say they sat in meetings, they were on phone calls – if that's the case, that's your culture. That is what you do every day. But if you work at a company where you go home and you say, “You know what, I had this incredible meeting with these really ingenious people. I was able to help a customer that I didn't expect needed my help,” that has a tremendous impact on you and on them. And it makes people want to stay at work and they're more engaged.

If you get the work right you're 64% more likely to have people that are focused and engaged at work. This is according to a simplicity study from Siegel and Gale. You have people that are 80% more likely to want to stay, you have 70% more people that are likely to be inspired and happy at work, and your customers are 20% more likely to do more business with you. If you get that culture right, by getting the work right, the benefits are incredible simplicity makes an impact.


Your speeches are very interactive – you've got some great tools that you use. How does that make a difference in getting your message across?

I think being interactive with my speeches is incredibly important. You can't be a speaker today and not be interactive because the Death by PowerPoint days are over. People are time starved. They are multi-tasking constantly. I joke about that in my speeches. It's my job as a speaker, to provoke them, to inspire them and interact with them, because they want to know what I think. But they also want to know what others think. People in the audience want to know: Are they like everyone else? Are they having the same issues?

So, I like to use interactivity in a few ways. One I like to use I use Mentimeter, which is live active polling with people so they can get a pulse on how much complexity are they experiencing versus everyone else. It makes them feel normal. It makes them feel human. Because that's what this issue is – we're all human and we create complexity without realizing it. I also use some physical activities to help people realize how that happens. You can't tell people they're part of a problem, you have to show them, especially with leaders.

I do a lot of exercises where I'll show them how they actually don't question work. They fall into ruts, just like everyone else. I try and shake them out of that. I also will have them interacting with each other to share the things they use to keep simplifying at work so they can learn from others and will even solve stuff right in the room.

I did a thing with AT&T for their top 1,000 people. I said, “If you could kill any rule at work right now that keeps you from being more innovative, inspired, and able to get to customers faster, what would it be?” They entered their ideas into the polling system and in less than a minute we had thousands of ideas that just popped up on screen – just because I asked.

So, the good news is, we can show people quickly that they're part of the problem because they're human. But there are simple things they can do just by asking their teams to get rid of that complexity right now. It's real, it’s fun, and it's productive. I love that


We keep hearing about the mental health crisis at work and low engagement rate of people at work. How does complexity factor into that?

I like to joke with people that no one gets hired for their amazing meeting abilities or their incredible ways that they write emails. Everyone laughs. I'm not here to fix emails for people. I'm not here to make them more productive. I'm here to help them get more time to do the things that they were hired to do in the first place. The things that they went to school for that they were trained for that they had mentors for the work that matters, everyone wants to make an impact, right, they want to leave something behind, they want to reach a potential. And the work that most people are doing every day is not fulfilling that for them.

That's what I mean when I say in getting the work right, you get the culture right – and people become engaged. They feel their time is valued. And you know, time is a non-renewable resource – you're never going to get it back. People get mad when you waste their money. And now they realize, especially during COVID, they’re mad when people waste their time, because they realize so much of its wasted. And that's what's trickled over into work. We've got to better use our time, and we have to start to be more intentional about how we use it.

I was talking with Voss, who's the CEO of Novartis, and I asked what he thought about people being disengaged. He said, I think people are busy and busy isn't fulfilling unless they’re doing good work. His comment really struck me – what people value isn't about adding more but doing better. As we started talking about this, we realized too what people fear at work – they don't fear missing out, what they fear is being irrelevant. And they don't want more work. They want more time to think. If we can better embrace simplicity by weeding out the unnecessary stuff, people are going to be more engaged, they're going to have better mental health, and they're going to feel like they're doing the work that they were hired to do. And I think that's important.


One final question, Lisa, and this relates to leaders. In order for anything to happen, leaders have got to be behind it. Simplicity as a grassroots idea is going to be harder to embrace without leadership’s support. What can leaders do to help move the idea of simplicity along organization-wide.

I say this in every speech. It’s not that it doesn't matter when lower ranks are complaining. but it doesn't change until the leaders feel it. And the leaders are feeling it. That's just a fact. And it's not just because it's a drain on money and a drain on time it is. But it is a drain on mental health. It's a drain on retaining talent. And it's a drain on being able to move fast. We're not able to compete. Leaders have to get on board with this, giving people permission to get rid of what's not working, getting rid of complexity, giving people space, or they will lose people.

What leaders need to do is a few things. One, they need to communicate to people that simplicity is not just important, but it's mandated, you expect people to do it, because that takes away not just the friction, it takes away the fear. And that's really important. This isn't about fixing a process, because we'll screw that up. Again, it's about taking away the fear that goes along with getting rid of something, I hope I don't screw it up.

The second thing they have to do is to communicate that this isn't about being more productive, but about being able to do the work that matters to do meaningful work. Because people get on board with that. People don’t get up in the morning for shareholder value. They want to get up in the morning excited about doing great work.

The other thing leaders have to do is they've got to model the behavior because if they don't do it, their leaders won’t do it…their teams won't do it. I use this example going back to Pfizer, again, where their CEO Albert used to be in charge of simplification. He told his teams to say no to meetings. What a great thing! And a month later, everyone was still going to meetings. And he asked his chief of staff what's going on? I told them not to go to meetings. And the chief of staff bluntly said, “you still go so they think they still need to go.” Until he stopped going, they didn't stop going. So, modeling the behavior of simplification is what really ignites it for the rest of the team and leaders have to do that first.

About Tony D'Amelio

Tony has spent his career putting talented people and audiences together, first in the music business and later representing the world's leading speakers. After concluding 27 years as Executive Vice President of the Washington Speakers Bureau, Tony launched D'Amelio Network, a boutique firm that manages the speaking activities of a select group of experts on business, management, politics and current events. Clients include: Mike Abrashoff, Mariana Atencio, Chris Barton, Lisa Bodell, Geoff Colvin, Daryl Davis, Suneel Gupta, Ron Insana, Katty Kay, Polly LaBarre, Nicole Malachowski, Ken Schmidt, and Bob Woodward.

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