The Power Of Simplicity

One thing that I continue to marvel at is the value that can be provided by a simple model. A straightforward structure of seeing the world, of explaining a concept, of illustrating the choices that are available.

I was in a meeting of a product design group a few years ago. It was a multi-day affair, as we wrestled with how to develop—and position—a very new and radically different product relative to the well-established offering that was the organization’s bread and butter. The goal was to provide more value, without threatening or undermining what already existed. Complicating that was the fact that there were several competing research directions that represented very different choices in how the work might proceed.

Over the course of a day, the conversation circled what to do, how to do it, why to choose one way or another, the risks and consequences of varying approaches. Different members of the group not only had different viewpoints, but also wrestled with even understanding the options on the table and the consequences of each.

Sometime later in the evening, I approached a flip chart, and said “Essentially, based on what I’m hearing, we’ve got three choices to explore.” I drew them out (literally; each had its own icon) and quickly summarized in writing the pros and cons of each.

The reaction in the room was one of, “Yes! That’s it! Brilliant!” Now, I hadn’t solved anything. No choice had been made. All I did was synthesize and simply represent the options that were on the table, and summarize the essence of what the group had been saying most of the day. I did that for my benefit, as much as for everyone else.

I didn’t expect the reaction that I got, and I’m amazed at similar responses every time I encounter them. In my view, I’m stating what’s relatively obvious. But often what I’m doing is helping to create a level of clarity that was elusive. Where the group was labouring with detail and complexity, the diagram offered a way to simply and succinctly frame the choices on the table.

Despite that, very often we like detail. We mistrust simplicity as being—to put not too fine a point on it—too simple. If there is an easy or a complex way to do something, there is often an unconscious bias that the detailed approach must be in some way “better.” It’s more complete, or more comprehensive, or more thorough.

As a case in point, let’s talk about templates. And given that they’re what I know—and I’ve developed more than anyone in any lifetime should have—I’m going to specifically reference project management templates (although the example works with pretty much any model you choose, from strategic planning to systems development).

For starters, template designers are a rare breed. The job is taking the process that is being supported, identifying the information that needs to be captured through that process, and finding a way to represent and structure that information in a theoretically accessible and understandable manner. The two most important words in that sentence are “needs” and “theoretically.”

The information that needs to be captured from a process should be self evident. It rarely is. Mostly because we confuse what can be captured from a process with what has to be captured from a process. And so said template designer opts to capture everything that is possible, rather than everything that is essential.

You can see this on the internet, also. Think about the last time you subscribed to a newsletter online. The essential information to manage an email newsletter subscription is incredibly straightforward: you need an email address. You require nothing else whatsoever. If you wanted (and want is different from need) to be able to personalize said newsletter, it might also be helpful to have a first name. But that’s it. And yet the number of sign up forms that require everything short of a social insurance number (and not only asks for, but makes this data mandatory) is astounding.

And so we get project plans that ask for everything but the kitchen sink. And business cases that require the kitchen sink, with value of said sink assessed and evaluated from three different perspectives. And I will not speak again of the status report whose template—when empty—was five pages long, implicitly demanded the use of earned value, asked for cost information to be broken down in three different ways and took something north of five hours a week to fill out correctly.

Do we need all of that? No. Is it helpful? Not usually. Occasionally, when a project is challenged—or challenging—we may want or value more information. But that’s the exception, not the rule. If we focus on just what is essential, that in no way precludes asking for more information when the situation warrants it. But there is no need to inflict the same detailed requirement on everyone, “just in case we might need it someday.”

Simple—when done correctly—can be hugely powerful. Business Model Generation by Strategyzer—which is one of those rare and wonderful books that belong to the category of “I wish I had written that”—outlines an incredibly useful resource, the business model canvas. It’s a deceptively simple model. It outlines, for any given business proposition, how to work out a cost and revenue structure that can make that business idea viable.

The model is incredibly straightforward. There are nine boxes. The canvas is loosely divided into three overall sections. For any business model defined in the middle, there are revenues and relationships on the right hand side, and costs and capabilities on the left hand side. Figure out an appropriate balance that allows you to deliver on your value proposition on a sustainable basis, and you have the potential blueprint for a viable business model.

Behind the simplicity of the representation, however, lies a great deal of potential depth. You can peel the various layers of the onion all the way down. Hundreds of articles and tens of thousands of words have been written explaining, illustrating and providing working examples of the business model canvas. Thousands—if not tens of thousands—of models have been developed using the model, each one unique and specifically representative of the problem it is trying to solve.

A different perspective—at an entirely different level of granularity—is the Cynefin model, developed by David Snowden. Developed as a decision-making framework, it specifically asks decision makers to consider and question their perceptions. It is a way of making sense of situations and challenging perspectives. The model is often though of as having four essential quadrants—and is supplemented by the black hole of disorder in the middle.

At its essence, what the Cynefin framework highlights is that different decision making situations require different responses. What the domains of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic do is help to frame and identify what kind of situation you are dealing with, and how to respond to it.

Again, Cynefin is a model that on the surface is simple, but that has layers of depth and meaning below. Navigating order and reason, differentiating rational order from underlying complexity, and knowing when cause-and-effect decision making no longer applies is incredibly relevant and valuable. Knowing that “best practices” are only practical and possible with simple situations, and are irrelevant at best—and dangerous at worst—alone makes the model worth the price of admission. Providing guidance on how to appropriately respond when best practices get left far behind is invaluable.

Models don’t get much simpler, though, then the Johari window. Developed by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, this is the model that gave us the joke “no problem is so complex that it can’t be solved with a two-by-two matrix.” The grid it represents is simple, but profound. It’s a model of human interaction that explores the intersection of what we know and don’t know about ourselves, and what others know and don’t know about us.

What both ourselves and others are aware of is the objective arena that we play in every day. What we know that others don’t hides behind a façade, while what others know and we remain unaware of represents our blind spots. What neither group is aware of are the mysteries that lurk in the unconscious.

Four simple boxes. Lots of profound opportunity for insight and exploration. And no person—and no group—is necessarily represented in the same manner. And so we get to a simplified view of the inherently messy and complex functioning of social interactions.

That’s the thing with simple models, though. They create meaning and understanding out of messy and difficult situations. Like the painting of options that I started this article with, they take complex challenges and make them explicable.

It would be easy to take any of the models that I’ve discussed here and highlight, “But this may miss an important point.” And that might be true. And missing that point might be relevant some of the time. And it might be irrelevant at other times. And if it’s relevant most of the time, then the particularly model that we’re using may not be the best one for our immediate purposes.

All of that is just fine. Models work like maps. The map is not the territory; it simplifies and focusses on some aspects of a geography, at the expense of ignoring or minimizing others. It highlights roads so that we can drive, or topology so that we understand elevations, or soil types so that we understand agricultural possibilities. In all instances, you pick the map that best suits the purposes of the problem you are trying to solve.

Models work in exactly the same way. They simplify for a reason: because we need to focus our attention on what matters, and to minimize or remove factors that are not of immediate concern to us. We have explored models to explain decision making, human relations and organizational business models. All of them have a surface similarity, in that they are made of boxes with words inside. And each one solves a very different problem.

Like maps, models work best when we pick the model that best suits the problem we are trying to solve. The opportunity and the requirement is not to have one model at the ready; it’s to have many. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you apply one model to every situation (I’m looking at you, best practices) you unnecessarily beat up on the perspective you know, while ignoring other influences that might matter a great deal more.

There is great power in simplicity. And there is great depth behind it. The simplicity on the surface is what helps us to sift and sort what model might actually be relevant. But it’s the depth underneath that allows us to make sense of the situation we find ourselves in, and to work towards meaningful and relevant solutions.

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