Editorial: Simple isn't always best

Simplicity is a seductive concept. It's often associated with beauty, purity and clarity - all noble qualities.

by Matthew Gwyther, MT editor
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Leonardo Da Vinci called it 'the ultimate sophistication', a far more elegant aphorism than the vulgar KISS ('Keep it simple, stupid'). MT is having a considered look at simplicity this month and the marked lack of it in modern business. We have two related features on the subject: first, a round-table discussion on complexity with some high-profile bosses who have plenty of strongly held views; second, a look at how voguish the concept of simplicity has become among those who ache to slash through the Gordian knot of day-to-day business life in the 21st century.

Simplicity implies minimalism, a clearing away of dross. But is less always more? If it delivers value, complexity can be highly attractive. A Swiss watch, the internet, an Airbus A380, the Indian railway system - all are necessarily complex. The dual-core microprocessor really gets the juices flowing in some people, and I wouldn't want to go for a spin in an A380 that had been rigorously simplified. Martin Sorrell is right when he says that if life and business were that simple, he'd be out of a job.

It could be that there are, as with cholesterol, two kinds of complexity: the good and the bad. One clogs up your arteries and, in serious excess, gives you a heart attack. The other version helps to clear the bad stuff and keep the blood flowing.

The international banking system has been brought low by some fiendishly complex devices, including the now-infamous CDO (collateralised debt obligation), leading observers such as the omniscient Warren Buffett to remind us never to invest in anything we don't understand. Our profile this month is of John Varley, CEO of Barclays, who has had a turbulent year but is still in his job. Cadbury is also going through troubled times as it tries to simplify and reinvent itself.

And do look at our piece on pricing. I've had a bee in my bonnet about this for years and was going to write it myself before my deputy Andrew Saunders stepped in. It's a subject rarely covered, but it's hard to see why. Andy says it's because nobody will talk about it: companies keep their pricing strategies closer to their chest than a Las Vegas shark holds his cards.

Finally, what's it worth to be voted onto MT's 35 Women Under 35 list? It is a pearl beyond price. If you wish to nominate anyone for this year's list, published in our July issue, contact emma.devita@haymarket.com.

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