Simplicity

We live in a society of rampant complexity. To deal with this, we need more information. And the more information we have, the more we have to think. This is unique to our modern environment. Information used to be scarce but valuable: noticing something moving in the grass could be the difference between having dinner, or being someone’s dinner.

Complexity is a disease. The unnecessary and non-essential litter our days. We go to meetings we don’t need to go to. We encounter more and more process and overhead.

The answer to all this complexity lies in making things easy to understand or explain. We need to remove the extra and non-essential. We call this simplicity. Simplicity is incredibly powerful. It’s values apply to all aspects of our life: business, mind, and relationships. But, ironically, even it itself is misunderstood

So, what are the key ideas to simplicity? And, what does it take to bring simplicity into what we do?

Get into the details

Edward de Bono in his book on Simplicity says: “Be determined to seek simplicity.” This is an acknowledgement that simplicity is hard. You have to be prepared to unearth context and meaning.

Without a deep understanding of context, it is easy to look at what others are doing and copy them. If A does B and is successful then, we must do B to be successful. This is why we have shelves and shelves of books on the “secrets” of business.

Rather than do the work to understand completely, we fall back to adopting familiar patterns without knowing the full context. Whether or not that pattern is a good-fit. We are content to “hack” solutions together and take shortcuts. We don’t pay attention to the details.

In the details we get to understand things from a completely different perspective. This is the difference between having an aerial view versus being able to walk around at street-level. To touch, feel, and smell the details.

In the details, we get to understand the essence of problems.

Cut, Cut, Cut

Only once you have done all the work to understand what is essential, will you know what is important or not. Only then, you can remove duplication to leave only the essential. This is key to simplicity. We remove anything that could confuse, dilute, or pollute.

“Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.” — Dieter Rams

Removing the non-essential, introduces focus. An example: energy. You can take all the energy and spread it out over many projects. This is being able to contain energy and direct it at a specific thing.

But, it’s also important not to simplify too much.

Let’s take something as familiar and simple as a door. They’ve been around for 5000 years and we all interact with them many times a day. But who hasn’t had the embarrassment of struggling to open a door? Even doors can be complex.

If you only go surface-level deep you end up with simple rather than simplicity. You might have removed too much or the wrong things. These are the doors which are just flat slabs of glass. Nothing to signify how to use, where to place your hand, whether to push or to pull. These doors are simple but confusing.

We need to remind ourselves of the original purpose of things.

Break things down

When dealing with large complex systems, we have to be able to break stuff down. Draw boundaries and simplify each part. You’d expect the reverse to also be true, that we could build up simpler components into a system that is easy to understand. But, that is not the case.

In the process of breaking down projects, it is important to keep an eye on the whole. Sub-systems need clearly defined responsibilities and roles within the overall system itself.

This applies to what already exists as much as when introducing new things. In products, we should not add features without looking at what we are adding to. We need to add thoughtfully and at the same time decide what can be removed. This applies to processes, strategy, and organizational design.

Become comfortable simplifying sub-systems as part of an overall complex system.

Who’s it for?

“You need to know for whose sake the simplicity is designed.” — Edward de Bono

Simplicity is ultimately about how someone experiences something. Because of this we need to put ourselves into the shoes of the person experiencing it. Whatever is being experienced, needs to be interpreted and understood. This involves people, it will need to take account of those people. What their motivations are. What are they trying to do? To understand?

People are wildly different. In order to cater for how people are going to use something, or interact with something you need to consider the person impacted.

Conclusion

Applying the values of simplicity in your day-to-day work and life is incredibly powerful. The world is surrounded in complexity. People, in general, do not want to do the work to make things simple, which makes the power of simplicity even greater.

Despite this, we all crave for a better understanding. We crave for things to be clear and obvious. This leads to better experiences for all of us.

Get into the details, remove the unnecessary, understand its purpose and break things down where necessary. Apply these principles to everything: your work, your conversations, your writing, your relationships, your mind, and your life.