Hit it with the Simple Stick
Complexity makes confused leaders feel important when they should feel like failures.
“The business schools reward difficult complex behavior more than simple behavior, but simple behavior is more effective.” Warren Buffett
Rivers take long, complex routes to the ocean because they follow the easy path. The hard path is the straight one.
Simplicity is rejected because it seems unimportant, ineffective, even naïve. Simple feels common and easy, even though it’s rare and difficult.
Complexity is the path of least resistance;
simplicity the most.
Sources of complexity:
- Resistance to simplify what’s already working.
- Reluctance to kill something that might work.
- Lack of resolve and attention to the value of simplicity.
Complexity reflects beginnings that never died, but should have.
Simplicity is exclusive.
Complexity is inclusive.
Simplicity is the result of elimination.
Developing simplicity is taking away not adding to. Eliminating options is taking the straight path to the ocean.
- Find simplicity for yourself before imposing it on others. Eliminate nonessentials; expose essentials.
- Make the pursuit of simplicity a leadership priority. Begin pursuing.
- Constantly scan for complexity and attack it ferociously.
The Simple Stick:
The first time I read the expression, “Hit it with the ‘simple stick’,” was reading Ken Segall’s book, “Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success.”
People often walked away from Steve Jobs having been hit with the Simple Stick. Segall believes the reason Apple is the most profitable business in the world is it’s obsession with simplicity.
The path to exceptional includes finding your “simple stick.”
*This post continues my reflections on my visit to the Chick-fil-A Leadercast.
Bonus: “Simple Isn’t Easy”
What are the sources of complexity?
What does the path to simplicity look like to you?
Since I didn’t see your first simple post until today, I’m going to repeat the feedback I gave there in the hope that more will see it.
I am a very big fan of keeping things simple. Sometimes, due to the fact that many of my colleagues have limited local language skills and educational qualifications, my “keep it simple” mantra is misinterpreted so people think I have a lack of belief in the capabilities of these colleagues. That’s when I explain that keeping it simple is most important when I am presenting to the Board or the Executive Committee. Their days are so busy, agendas so long and challenges so great, that I need to present my case as simply as possible so they understand it in the brief window of time I have. Not only do they have to understand it, but they also have to buy into it and hopefully start living my mantra too!
So far it’s worked pretty well for a pretty long time and I continue to live my simple sentence today. I even use it as my sign off in all correspondence one way or the other.
Stay safe and
Just for clarification, I should have said I didn’t see your first post about simplicity until today… wouldn’t want you to think I think you are simply a simpleton! 🙂
Great add and support for simplicity. I’m glad you double posted your story. Perhaps it will encourage some to become simplifiers.
I’ve often been called ‘simple’. 🙂
I am simple. 🙂
Simple to me is serving others like I would want them to serve me.
Path to simple having something people get more benefit from me than they pay to get it.
Create a little curiosity by sharing with them
1. Here is what I got
2. Here is what it will do for you
3. Here is what I need you to do next
Get that WHY thingy figured out!
Go to meetings
Simple enough..simple mantras have major impact. cheers
Lol. Not at all!
Great thoughts, Dan. Simplicity empowers where complexity subjugates! Simplicity is telling your team to do the right thing and create solutions and experiences that are as beneficial for the client/customer as they are for the team/business. Simplicity is saying “What is the right thing to do?” and then…doing it! Of course, it’s never that simple 😉
“Simplicity empowers…” KaChing!
I apply simplification extensively. It’s key to everything I do. May I draw your attention to the following trap: Certain simplification efforts make the environment more complex!
This happens when managers and experts execute simplification efforts within their areas of responsibility. That’s a great thing when the number of external implications is low and implications can be overseen. In complex environments, however, the number of external complications is often high and/or the external implications cannot be overseen. In those cases, what is a simplification in one organisation can easily create complications in other organisations. Those other organisations are then forced to take corrective steps. With each organisation approaching is somewhat differently, different solutions to what used to be a single solution are bound to emerge. Instead of reducing the number of bits and pieces and their dependences in the system, they multiply.
What can be done about it? Execute simplification efforts when the number of external dependencies is low and their implications can be overseen. When this is not the case: Find the level where external implications are low or where their implications can be overseen (often at full enterprise level or a level below). Then identify the lowest-effort but highest impact solution that simplifies the whole environment.
Historical examples of simplicity include: George Washington’s standing order that unless he could annihilate the British he would leave the field of battle after one day (lesson learned from his defeats in Long Island).
The hedgehog concept illustrated by Jim Collins’ Good to Great
Benjamin Graham’s approach to investing
Sherman’s scorched earth campaign
Paul’s simple testimony to Agrippa
The Sermon on the mount
In contrast, complexity has resulted in some of the most notable downfalls of history. I only leave one to ponder here: Britain was about to capitulate until Germany decided to open the conflict with Russia.
Great post, thanks for getting me to think…
We admire elegant, clear systems and solutions. But not all leadership challenges are simple. Not all complex challenges can be “simplified,” without fundamentally changing the system. We also note that effective leaders can and should learn to engage complexity. Over time, we may be able to stabilize a complex process enough to recognize its emergent coherence, and implement more successful strategies.
We draw on the body of scientific research about complexity and leadership. This includes the work of Jeff Goldstein et al- Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership; Richard Knowles’ book The Leadership Dance, and the work of Mary Uhl-Bien, Ralph Stacey, Michael Lissack, and Margaret Wheatley, to name a few.
I think I first heard this from Andy Stanley; “All organizations drift towards complexity over time.” After hearing that, I stepped back and looked at the organization I lead….and man was he right. We had policies and procedures I forgot we even had. We now have to intentionally fight the drift.
Great post Dan. I have found a great way to know if you are dealing with the complex is that people find it difficult to explain. It seems a nice telltale sign for those scanning the environment for complexity.
Hi Dan, I don’t agree at all, but I think it is because we have different definitions of “complexity”.
As an economic and human development professional who incorporates complexity theory effectively into my daily work, I cannot agree that simplicity should (or even can) replace complexity.
Complexity is not the same as complicated. Complicated things have many components, like a watch or a business plan, and usually work better and are easier to understand when simplified.
Complex things entail locally adapting agents, and include social networks and economic markets.
One of the most common and dangerous leadership mistakes of the 21st century is to take the tools that are effective for simplifying complicated problems and apply them to complex problems. This mistake is like trying to hammer a nail with a lawnmower – it increases randomness and uncertainty and ultimately leads to powerlessness and a complete lack of control. But leaders who know the appropriate tools for managing complexity can thrive.
For an introduction to complexity and how to manage it, I recommend:
Understanding Complexity, by Scott E. Page. A Great Video course offered through “The Great Courses”. http://www.thegreatcourses.com
The books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Either The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, or Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder are good starting places.
Thanks to Jeff Sinclair for the post on the difference between complicated and complex. In my work with organizations, the single biggest mistake of leadership is treating truly complex challenges and systems, as if they were in fact complicated.
David Snowden’s HBR article of 2097, describes his Cynefin framework for sense-making and decision-making. Simple challenges are about “known knowns.” answers are clear to all. Complicated challenges are about “known unknowns.” Experts can solve the problem.
But complex challenges and systems are different. They are not predictable or controllable. Causality is understood only in retrospect. Dissect a frog, and try to put it back together again. Won’t work. So too with complex systems. We can try promising ideas, with safe-to-fail efforts, and try to keep what worked, eliminating what doesn’t work. So, we engage complexity like a martial artist, or surfer. We don’t know what’s coming in the next moment, but we can be aware, attentive, willing to respond, and able to learn as we go.
For more info:
Snowden & Boone HBR, A Leader’s Framework For Change
Waltuck: Complexity and Quality Improvement Primer
R. Knowles: The Leadership Dance
J. Goldstein et al: Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership
21st century leaders need the “this…and…” stick, to really know what complexity is, and what tools are available to successfully engage it. As W. Edwards Deming noted, “Learning is optional. Survival is optional.”