“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein
We live, work and play in an increasingly complex world. Some might say Humanity has been creating and refining complexity since the dawn of time. Others connect it to the arrival of the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age. But we can all agree that the “simple life” is hard to find, and simplifying our current reality is even harder.
First published in 1999, The Power of Simplicity, by Jack Trout and Steve Rivkin, explores the challenges managers face in the increasingly complex business world. In hindsight, 1999 might look much simpler than 2012; but even then Trout and Rivken voiced concerns that very precisely mirror what worries us today: the rapid rise of technology, the immediacy of communications, the globalization of world economies, and the unceasing pace of business. As viewed just before the dawning of the 21st Century, Trout and Rivkin suggested that the future belongs to the simpleminded. Of course, their intent was not to concede the world to the intellectually-challenged among humanity, but to prescribe an approach for the harried population to cope with complexity and simplify our lives for greater effectiveness, particularly in business.
Consider these four suggestions Trout and Rivken offer for achieving simplicity:
Fight complexity – Meet complexity head-on and don’t fear the vulnerability that accompanies seeing and stating things in simple and direct terms. Part of the allure of complexity is its innate ability to camouflage problems and ignorance – a means to avoid the decisive action required to reveal issues and produce solutions with unmistakable clarity.
Embrace simplicity – Simplicity begins with common sense, explained with brevity and supported by a few key facts. In other words, seeing things as they really are and using that reality as your compass for action. In both writing and speaking, the shorter the better. Uncluttering your mind results in clearer thinking. Uncluttered communication results in greater understanding. The hard work of distilling the elegantly simple is worth the effort. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was approximately two minutes long. The power and resonance of that communication would have been lost had those words been buried among two hours of rhetoric.
Be a contrarian – Swimming against the tide or thinking outside the box are two metaphors that are time-tested and very necessary in the pursuit of simplicity. Challenging the status quo, testing assumptions and beliefs is hard work and invites criticism, but can yield enduring benefits when a path is clearly lit and well-defined.
Respect your people – It is wise for organizational leaders to appreciate and encourage a constant information exchange with those who have the close-up and realistic view of that which gets done, day in and day out. The seemingly most effective way for leadership to mine an organization’s intellectual capital is to share a clear and concise vision, point the team in the right direction, and then get out of the way.
The book concludes with shining examples of simplicity at work (a Simplicity Hall of Fame, if you will) that include Papa John’s Pizza, Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A and Kohl’s Department stores. All are thriving stalwarts of simplicity over 13 years later. Maybe there’s power in that KISS formula after all (“Keep It Simple Silly”).
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