Have you ever had to confabulate with someone who had a tendency to obnubilate issues through prestidigitation that resulted in turbulence in the communion of the broad team?  [Loose translation:  Have you ever had to talk with someone who confused the issues by making things more complex than necessary?]

Many people have a basic primal need for structure and system and process at all costs in order for them to make sense of their surroundings, but in a world that is more frequently demanding us to deal with ambiguous or incomplete information it becomes more difficult to find models or systems that can hold up.  Where we used to have simple organizational structures we now have complex matrices and cross-functional teams.  Where once there was Scientific Management we now have complex Lean processing and Just In Time systems and even flexible manufacturing lines.  Where we once had TVs that received 13 channels, we now have Internet Connected Smart-TVs with thousands of live channels, recording capability, NetFlix, and social integration so we never miss a Tweet or a Like (even in the dying minutes of Monday Night Football).

As the level of available clear information has gone down, our level of complexity in our systems and processes has increased.  As the level of choice and opportunity within the consumer space has increased with the broad availability of digital media and channels, the level of product complexity has similarly increased.

What happened to the KISS Principle?

Not surprisingly as we have become so numb to the “new normal” of complexity in our organizations, program structures, processes, and products that we have been trained to question the simple ideas.  When a complex idea is proposed many people will simply accept that it’s the right answer because we’re now accustomed to the complexity (and let’s be frank – most of them don’t understand how this complex system works, so rather than look dumb they accept that it must be right).

When someone proposes a simple solution or a simplified product our natural tendency has become to question it thoroughly until it becomes complex.  Are there really no great simple answers any more?

I contend that the real power and opportunity to win still lies in simplicity, a sentiment shared by Matthew E. May in his HBR post “The Less-Is-Best Approach to Innovation“.

Consider this evidence:

  • Only about 1 in 5 IT Projects will bring full satisfaction.  The larger the project, the more likely the failure.
  • When the iPhone launched in 2007 it lacked many of the “key features” of competing phones including Cut and Paste (arrived with iOS 3.0) and easily installable applications (arrived in 2008 with the App Store), but rather focused on simplifying the user experience.  It went on to completely redefine the smart-phone market and consumer expectations.
  • When Nucor launched the “Mini-Mill” it was capable of producing only low grade commodity steel products like rebar, but by leveraging reclaimed material inputs and significantly smaller plant footprints and energy consumption it could deliver those commodity products closer to construction sites and at much lower cost than the large steel mills.  Mini-mill technology has resulted in a significant shift in the steel industry and the closure of many traditional steel manufacturers and plants.
  • Instagram started life as an application called Burbn which was full of features and appeared focused on location based gaming (although lacked any real clear value proposition).  CEO Kevin Systrom stripped the unneeded features from the system and brought it back to a simple photo filtering and sharing product that customers could easily connect with.  As a result Instagram gained 2 million users in four months – faster than Foursquare, Facebook, or Twitter.

Simplicity is still as powerful as it has ever been, but achieving it in a world of complexity and ambiguity is harder than ever.  Use these simple questions to help yourself get back to the simple view on things:

  • What am I trying to solve for?  Get crystal clear up front on what the specific problem that you need to solve is, or you will find yourself very quickly holding a heating element in the  Atlantic Ocean.
  • What does my customer, employee, and organization value in this problem?  If you don’t understand the clear value you’re trying to create with a solution then you’ll significantly increase your chance of failure.
  • Can I describe my approach in one simple sentence?  Often illustrated in the power of the “elevator pitch”, if an idea or approach takes more than one sentence or a simple diagram to explain and gain understanding then it’s too complex.
  • Would this make sense to a nine year old?  Children’s thought patterns are powerful in their simplicity – they can quickly identify patterns and often see patterns that we don’t see because they haven’t yet been trained to “filter” the noise we have.  To a child simple is simple, complex is complex – there is no confusion.
  • Have I simplified this to the point of losing value?  There is a danger in simplification that you simplify to the point of eliminating any value at all.  As Einstein said (or was interpreted to say) “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.  Once you’ve gone through the exercise of simplifying it helps to check once again that you are addressing the core value and needs and haven’t gone one step too far down the path to simplicity.

Once you’re sure you have boiled your problem, solution, and approach down to it’s core simplicity get ready to do some marketing.  Simple is powerful, but it’s not natural any more.  People expect complexity and question simplicity – after all we’ve been trained to look for complex solutions and systems.  Stick with your simple message, take the time to explain it, and don’t let complexity creep back in, and you will be setting the foundation for a simpler approach to work in your team or organization going forward.

Less is indeed best.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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