Magazine article Management Today

Simplicity: Not as Easy as It Looks

Magazine article Management Today

Simplicity: Not as Easy as It Looks

Article excerpt

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.

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. …

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