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Simple - Not Simplistic

The world is a complex, chaotic place. Innovation efforts are all the more complicated because they are directed at an inherently unpredictable future. I’ve said before that the answer to the challenge of this complexity is not more complexity. The answer is simplicity.

Simplicity is empowering. Complexity is debilitating. Simplicity creates clarity.

Complexity creates confusion. Simplicity is fun. Complexity is frustrating.

The key is to be simple, though, and not simplistic. You need to be careful not to cross the fine line between them. I believe strongly in the paraphrase of Einstein, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”[1] Or, as design genius Don Norman puts it, “The mark of the great designer is the ability to provide what people need without excessive complexity, without feature bloat. [But] simplicity [alone] should never be the goal.”[2] Simple, but not simplistic.

An ancient proverb tells of six blind men examining an elephant. “It’s like a temple pillar," said the one who touched its leg. "No, it’s like a rope," said the one who touched its tail. “No, it’s like a swaying tree branch," said the one who touched its trunk. “No, it’s like a heavy curtain,” said the one who touched its ear. “No, it’s like a rock wall," said the one who touched its body. “No, it’s like a giant lance,” said the one who touched its tusk. They argued amongst themselves until a scholar approached and explained that each of them had examined only a part of the elephant. Sheepishly, they reconciled their differences, then went on their merry and wiser ways.

Over the centuries, this story has been used to illustrate a variety of morals,[3] but I’m going to use it as a way of illustrating what it means to be simple, rather than simplistic. Simple is seeing the whole animal, with all of its parts and complexities and interlinked systems, and thinking “elephant.” Simplistic is feeling just the tail and thinking “fuzzy snake without a face.”

Simple is empowering. Simplistic is debilitating. Simple is taking into account the myriad of complexities in the world and coming away with a cohesive understanding of how it all works together. Simplistic is focusing on one small piece of it all and thinking that’s all there is.

Embrace the chaos that surrounds you. Make sense of it. Filter out the irrelevant. Organize the relevant. Eliminate the confusion. Create your path to the future.

Keep innovation simple. Your efforts will be rewarded with success.

[1] Apparently, what Einstein actually said was “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Others then paraphrased that into the more eloquent, and ironically simple, quote used in the text.

[2] From Don Norman’s blog post “Why is 37signals so arrogant?” published on his website, I added the “but” and “alone” to better capture the meaning of the article as a whole.

[3] Usually to demonstrate the silliness of partisan bickering and the importance of merging perspectives to get an understanding of the full truth, both of which are also critical to innovation. But I digress from the simple story…

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