Matthew T. Phillips

Simplicity and Complexity (Charlotte Saturday MBA Class of 2015)

Charlotte Saturday MBA Graduation Celebration, Class of 2015
Bank of America Auditorium, Charlotte, NC


I first want to add my thanks to everyone who has enabled this day to happen in your lives: faculty members who have prepared and delivered first-rate courses; staff members who have enabled each part of the experience; family and friends who have forgiven their students for going underground for two years and shown them lots of support whenever they managed to surface; and, of course, you—the students—who have taken on each challenge and opportunity of this program with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Holmes on Complexity

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Doing an MBA, especially at night, balancing with your work and family lives, is, if anything, complex. Your calendar starts to look like a brick wall. Layers of commitments and priorities have to shift depending on the needs of those around you. Hopefully a little bit of simplicity returns to your lives now, though that won’t be automatic. It depends on you making an intentional decision, because complexity and complication are incredibly tempting.

Complex Management

Simplicity should be a goal in another phase of your life too – not just in the way you manage your calendar, but in the ways you engage with the world around you as a business leader.
In this, too, complexity is tempting.

To a lot of people, complexity looks like sophistication:

  • A thirty page analysis with a lot of bullets and footnotes and references creates a rebuttable presumption of sophistication, but that volume may be hiding a core uncertainty about the real problem and solutions.
  • A flow-chart with multiple interdependencies and all kinds of arrows and colors convinces people you worked really hard, but the process is probably going to be inefficient.

Complexity also means security.

  • Complex data reporting is a way to convey success when the key indicators don’t look so good standing on their own.
  • Complex team structures and project roles mean there’s always somebody else to point at when things go off the rails.
  • Complex organizations and procedures mean there need to be process experts with hard-won knowledge of how to get things done, so each individual holds on to siloed knowledge.

Finding Simplicity

In one way or another, just about everything we’ve done in this MBA program was about finding simplicity.

During your first days in class, you learned to take big stacks of messy data and turn it into clear analysis and projections. Quantitative analysis certainly has its share of complexity, but the genius is in the results that are simple enough to drive effective management.

And you learned about managing people in organizations. If there’s anything in the world that can be fairly labeled as “complex,” it’s human behavior – especially in organizational settings. So you looked for patterns and approaches that would simplify management at the intersection of complex communication styles, priorities, and personalities.

That process continued. Comfort with complexity, but hard work toward generating simple analysis, advice, and decisions. Hopefully it will continue for a long time yet to come.

Simple Leadership

What emerges from that model includes efficient management processes, to be sure—you might remember learning in high school physics that simple machines are generally more efficient—but also something much more valuable and much more personal: a simple leader.

A simple leader knows that complexity and sophistication aren’t the same thing and never relishes an opportunity to confuse someone else.

A simple leader knows that clear messages go much farther and have greater effect on an organization.

A simple leader has true integrity. People love to say that integrity means doing the right thing when nobody is looking, but that’s a symptom. Integrity means that your life is integrated: your values are reflected in your words, which are reflected in your actions, and you are the same person in all phases of your life.

And a simple leader searches through noise to find truth. She sifts through different personalities and behaviors to find the ways that people around her are trying to do the right thing. He is willing to say exactly what he means and then take responsibility for outcomes, rather than trying to hide amidst the complexity of the problems or circumstances. She establishes clear priorities without using one role in life to explain away other duties.

Being a simple leader is a lot harder than generating and wading among complications. It almost always involves more responsibility. Paradoxically, it requires more comfort with complexity, because you have to spend time sifting the complex into simple terms. And it requires tremendous self-confidence, because in a simple leadership environment, there won’t be any question who is responsible when problems arise.

But it’s what professionals do.

Whatever else it may mean to your careers, your families, or yourself, when you receive a Master of Business Administration from Wake Forest, it means that you have become a member of the noble profession of business. Not an easy club to be a member of, but the rewards are limitless.

Please know, on behalf of my faculty and staff colleagues, you are now alumni of the Wake Forest University School of Business, and so we are working alongside you in those lofty goals.

In this, as in all things, this shall ever be your community: we stand ready to challenge and support you, and we are grateful for the ways you challenge and support us too.

Congratulations, and thank you.