Saturday, May 3, 2008

In Search of Simplicity

Simplicity seems to be becoming a trend. Lately it has been a topic touched in many books and articles. In fact

Manager’s Toolbox exists
in order to simplify and remember
management and leadership best practices
– to make them stick.

In this post I will simply tell you what other people say about simplicity.

Presentation Zen

In February I was listening to Garr Reynolds’ presentation about good presentation. In that event Manager’s Toolbox came to life from the ideas that I had been working on for years. I bought his book, checked his presentation tips and follow his blog. He awaked my creativity and I try to use his ideas in my work and my blog. The pictures you see in my blog are actually my PowerPoint slides.

Garr really emphasizes the idea of simplicity. If there is one important precept worth following, he says, it is the idea of simplicity. The best visuals are often ones designed with an eye toward simplicity. Simplicity is used as a means to greater clarity.

He talks about visual simplicity. Simple slides will be virtually meaningless without the presenter's narration. But the slides never should have all the text the presenter presents – slides used to be high resolution projected pictures. Slides are only part of the story. The rest is up to you – the presenter!

Made to Stick

The Heath brothers, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, talk about presenting your idea and making it stick.

Being Simple is the first element of presenting an idea in a sticky way. In their book they define “simple” as finding the core of the idea, stripping the idea down to its most critical essence. That’s the easy part, the hard part is leaving out ideas that may be really important but just are not the most important idea.

The other five elements are Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories. Together these six elements can be compacted into the acronym SUCCESs, where the last S could stand for an idea that Sticks SUCCESSfully!

If Presentation Zen was mainly about the visuals, Made to Stick is about how to present the idea. (And this blog post is merely a hand out of my presentation of an idea I hope to make stick!)

The Elegant Solution – Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation

Matthew E. May stresses the importance of simplicity in his book and blog.

When it comes to innovation and designing solutions, whatever you do, keep it lean, he says. Scale it back, make it simple and let it flow. That’s what elegance is all about. It’s simplicity on a higher level, and regardless of whether the perspective is professional or personal, the aim of elegance is to make room for more of what matters by eliminating what doesn’t.

The first step is to start a war on complexity, which can be identified by inconsistency, overload, and waste – all of which unnecessarily consume the resources of time, effort, space, and money without adding value.

His ideas are universally valid and can be easily transferred to knowledge work in the office. If the earlier books were about how to formulate and present the idea in a simple way, this is more about how to make it real.

Simplicity-Minded Management
Harvard Business Review, December 2007

If you work in a big company, this is likely to be relevant for you. Check if your organization is too complex?

Ron Ashkenas asks if you are ready to cut out complexity out of your company. These are some advice he gives in the article.
  • Make simplification a goal, not a virtue. Include simplicity as a theme of the organization’s strategy, set targets for reducing complexity and reward simplicity
  • Simplify the organizational structure by reducing layers and consolidating similar functions
  • Simplify products and services
  • Discipline business and operating processes. Not only production and logistics, but also budgeting, planning, sales forecasting, etc. operating processes
  • Simplify your own personal patterns. Effectively manage meetings, emails, presentations, etc. and avoid micromanaging others

Sounds difficult? Yes it sounds, because the article is lacking simplicity. HBR is often suffering from what the Heath brothers call the Curse of Knowledge. HBR does not deliver simple, sticky ideas. They try to tell you everything about the idea, with perfect accuracy, in one article. And that does not stick.

But there are companies who seem to be able to pull it all together. Having the idea, presenting it, creating the elegant solution and making it BIG.

Inside Steve’s Brain

I found this book today while shopping with my family.

Leander Kahney takes a look inside the brain of Steve Jobs, CEO, chairman and co-founder of Apple. And he sees there, among other things, a lot of simplicity. Simplicity in the organization and strategy “The organization is clean and simple to understand, and very accountable. Everything just got simpler. That's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Steve Jobs said already in 1998.

Apple has simplicity in almost everything they do - in their products, product portfolio, iProduct names, stores, logo, presentations

I will not be surprised if Apple will soon do to Microsoft, Dell and Sony the same as Toyota did to GM. And just by focusing on simplicity!

Simple, isn’t it?

A designer knows he has achieved perfection
not when there is nothing left to add,

but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Photo of iPod by ricardoalvarez