Simplicity: not as easy as it looks

Keeping things simple has become a modern mantra, but one that big business finds it easier to say than act on. Perhaps you need to trust the obvious, says John Morrish.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Simplicity is considered a virtue. It brings with it a clarity of purpose, an easy understanding, even a certain kind of beauty. For those in business, especially big business, it is the thing to strive towards - the holy grail in an over-complicated, stressed and hassled world.

Yet simplicity is not simple to achieve. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said: 'I wouldn't 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.'

Business is in the throes of a passionate love affair with simplicity - all the way up from product design to organisational design. Muji, the no-logo Japanese retailer, sells itself on its minimalist design, while supermarket shelves groan under the weight of Simple products. As we struggle with unread e-mails, complex office processes and ever-expanding networks, simplicity offers the respite of which we all dream.

John Maeda is a guru of simplicity, a professor at MIT who founded a unit to evangelise the idea to the business world, but even he is alarmed about how modish it has become. 'It's too fashionable now,' he says. 'It has become a kind of marketing gravy to pour over anything that's bad.'

Nevertheless, there are plenty of people with advice for those seeking simplicity in the workplace. Bill Jensen, an American management consultant who bills himself as 'Mr Simplicity', has surveyed 1,500 companies, totalling 500,000 employees, to arrive at his conclusions. He says the business information that companies have to deal with 'doubles every 18 months, and it's getting worse all the time', as they cope with changes in the market, globalisation, technology and 24/7 working.

In his book Simplicity (HarperCollins, 2000), Jensen identifies a number of sources of complexity: the difficulty of integrating change; unclear goals and objectives; communications problems; and failures of knowledge management. As he puts it: 'The universal problem seems to be how hard people have to work just to figure out what to do.'

Companies have ever more rigorous planning and management strategies, and Jensen recognises the necessity for them. The problem is their implementation. Management tends to be 'corporate-centred' and thinks that every piece of planning and direction has to start at the top and be 'cascaded down', hierarchically. Instead, Jensen argues, management should be 'user-centred', designing its strategies backwards from the needs and capacities of members of staff.

And that is what he focuses on: developing 'personal information-management strategies' so that individuals can work out what is important, use the corporate structures and tools that are available to them, compete for their colleagues' time and safeguard their own in a world 'where anybody can get hold of anybody'.

To be 'simple' is to be honest, plain, artless - a valuable respite from the noise and complexity of our age. But that's not quite the simplicity that Maeda, a Japanese-American computer scientist and graphic designer, has promulgated in companies like Samsung, Lego and Toshiba through his Simplicity Consortium. He talks about simplicity as a movement important in product design but which can also be a strategic tool to help businesses cope with increasing complexity.

Maeda has written the key texts of the movement, starting with a small but acclaimed book, boldly entitled The Laws Of Simplicity (MIT Press, 2006). To make anything simple, he says, you need to apply 'thoughtful reduction'; that's why the iPod has fewer features than rival media players. Where you can't reduce - and too much reduction destroys the value of your product - you have to hide complexity; which is why Google has almost nothing on its home page. But for your simplified product to succeed, it has also to appear more valuable than more complex products, something you achieve with classy materials and clever marketing; which is why Bang & Olufsen's remote controls are heavier than you'd expect.

Those three ideas together make up the first law; there are 10 in all. Most companies, says Maeda, just pay lip service to simplicity, 'but for the minority who are really trying to integrate simplicity, it's an actual way of life'. Chief among these is Philips, the electronics giant.

In 2004, Maeda and four other outsiders - a fashion designer, an architect, a radiologist, and a car designer - were appointed by Philips to a simplicity advisory board to help it negotiate its transition from electronics giant to healthcare and domestic electronics company under a new corporate slogan: 'sense and simplicity'. Their task was not primarily a matter of looking at products. Says London fashion designer Sara Berman, one of the five: 'Our job was to say: "What is simplicity, and how are we going to make Philips be the bearer of that banner?"

'For John (Maeda) and me, it was all about emotional intelligence ... It's about how people emotionally connect to something.' In other words, the most powerful connections are those that operate on a visceral, emotional level, rather than through the intellect.

In this, Berman is following Maeda's lead. The seventh of Maeda's laws is: 'More emotion is better than less.' He points out that it is sometimes necessary to add layers of emotion to simple, pared-down, coldly efficient products: the first thing many people do with their iPod is to buy a case to protect and personalise it. He draws on his Japanese heritage to talk about aichaku, literally 'love-fit', 'a kind of symbiotic love for an object that deserves affection not for what it does, but for what it is'.

Meeting quarterly, the Philips simplicity board set about ensuring that everyone in the company understood how to make those emotional connections. Explains Berman: 'We developed various tools that are used in-house now for ensuring that products are developed or not developed - markers that would decide why something would go ahead or not go ahead. We were re-looking at its portfolios of product, saying: would this fit in with our new brand promise or not, and if so, why?'

It would be wrong to think simplified interfaces and stripped-down feature-sets are a panacea. The success of Apple's iPod is not as straightforward as it looks: the iPod is not just an MP3 player with a reduced set of features. It works because of its interaction with iTunes, because it is more aesthetically pleasing, and because it is more skilfully marketed.

Hard-edged modernist notions, such as 'form follows function' or 'ornament is crime', are not a good guide to product design. Don Norman, the legendary product designer, put it like this in his Interactions magazine column (March/April 2007): 'Simplicity is a myth whose time is past, if it ever existed. Make it simple and people won't buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realise it is accompanied by more complexity.'

But that, argues Dave Hutley, a business excellence manager with Philips UK, is why Philips stresses that a new product needs to be 'advanced'. 'It needs to be cutting-edge in terms of features,' he explains. 'But if you line up two products, and they can both do the same but one of them is very simple to operate and one is very complex, then the vast majority of people will go for the easy one.'

Achieving simplicity can be difficult for both individuals and organisations. Says Maeda: 'One thing I've taken away from interacting with many businesses is that every CEO is blown away by how complex their business is; but not only that, how complex the world has become. It's a combination of the fact that no-one can be local any more, they're all inherently global, and, secondly, that technology moves at a pace.'

As a corporate trainer, Maeda is happy to talk about grand strategy, but that is not what his customers want. 'I recently did a session for the top 50 leaders of a Fortune 10 company. I gave these 50 people a list of 15 things I could come and talk about and asked them to pick five. The number one thing they picked was "show me how to delete 75% of my e-mails".' (You can read about Jensen's technique at www.simplerwork.com).

Trevor Gay, formerly an NHS manager and now a consultant and the author of Simplicity Is The Key (Kingsham Press, 2004), takes a different stance. He thinks people on the front line are already getting the information they need and are in the right position to use it, if given responsibility. 'In the health service, for example, when we give responsibility to people at patient level, they often know the answers that managers might struggle with.' That leaves managers to find a more useful role. 'My view is that if you give responsibility to people at the front line, let them have their head, let them fly, then the manager's job becomes more appropriate, because they are able to become more strategic.'

Jack Trout, author of The Power of Simplicity (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001), gives short shrift to complex consultant and business-school strategies. 'Never trust anyone you don't understand,' he says. Good organisation should lead to correct strategic behaviour, but 'large organisations often become so complex that one part is undoing what another part is doing'. He commends Peter Drucker's idea that an organisation should be like an orchestra - with only one conductor.

Companies should focus on the basics. The book Trout is currently writing is called In Search of the Obvious, and that's the tool he recommends to executives trying to practise simplicity in management. 'Essentially, the most powerful ideas are painfully obvious, but people reject those because they are too simple. (They think) it cannot be that easy, it cannot be that simple. Unfortunately when people come to work, they leave their common sense out in the parking lot. We have this built-in admiration for complexity. And the obvious, which is really your most powerful approach, tends to be not trusted.'

The Power of Simplicity is a treasure-trove of down-to-earth wisdom and a valuable corrective to the freewheeling philosophy of Maeda. For example, here's Gay on competitors: 'Think of them as the enemy.' On pricing and differentiation: 'If you're not different, you'd better have a low price.' On leadership: 'Good leaders know where they're going.'

Asked to provide one simple key to simplicity, Gay says: 'Chances are, if you just look at a situation from a consumer's point of view or a customer's point of view ... your instincts will be excellent. You are like everybody else, and that's where the obvious thing works so well.'

Maeda, meanwhile, is facing new challenges. He is leaving MIT to run the Rhode Island School of Design. He has started a new blog and is inviting all 4,000 students and staff at the school to communicate with him direct, in accordance with two of his principles: that 'openness simplifies complexity' and that 'openness creates trust'.

'I'm simplifying the existing system of communication,' he says, 'by making my own life more complex.'

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