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What is "Simplicity" in Innovation?

Complexity, Simplicity and Innovation

The human brain is an amazing thing. It can simultaneously think about mixing the chicken noodle soup while feeling worry about a sick child and wondering where the thermometer is to see if that child has a fever. And while prioritizing the fourteen things that need to be done at work by the end of the day tomorrow. And while humming the latest catchy tune said child plays repeatedly on their iPod so loud you can hear it in the next room. And while considering whether to schedule a hearing test for that child. And on, and on…

Amazing as it is, though, it is not an all-knowing, all-powerful computer. It is limited and fallible. It has only so much capacity. It can handle only so much. It can do only so many tasks.

Innovation is a complex process in a chaotic world, made all the more difficult by working toward an inherently unpredictable future. Many organizations, if not most, address that complexity with complex processes, bureaucracy, and control systems. Unfortunately, meeting complexity with complexity breeds more complexity – and thereby, more ways to fail.

Finding ways to simplify enables us to do more, and achieve more. As Bill Jensen, author of Simplicity, puts it, “Simplicity – the art of making the complex clear – can give us the power to get stuff done. Power to work smarter. It’s a prerequisite if we want to leverage the untapped energy, innovation, creativity, and ideas that already exist in our organizations.”[1]

Jensen’s definition is important. Simplicity is the “art of making the complex clear.” Simple is not about being lazy. It’s not about finding the easy way. It’s not an excuse to avoid the work involved with complex solutions to complicated problems. Making something simple is hard work – maybe even harder work than making things complicated. But simplicity has been shown to outperform complexity, even in matters as complicated as econometric forecasting.[2]

Because of the natural chaos that surrounds the creation of something new, seeking simplicity in innovation is particularly important. “Simple” seeks to bring clarity to the chaos. Clarity aligns and coordinates resources to maximize the return from their efforts. And that makes the innovation engine hum.

Keep innovation simple. Your simplification efforts will be rewarded with far more successful innovation.


[1] Bill Jensen, Simplicity: Working Smarter In A World Of Infinite Choices, Basic Books, 2001

[2] Kesten C. Green and J. Scott Armstrong, “Simple Versus Complex Forecasting: The Evidence,” Social Science Research Network, March 1, 2015. From the abstract: “Our review of studies comparing simple and complex methods…found 97 comparisons in 32 papers. None of the papers provide a balance of evidence that complexity improves forecast accuracy. Complexity increases forecast error by 27 percent on average in the 25 papers with quantitative comparisons...Nevertheless, complexity remains popular among researchers, forecasters, and clients. Some evidence suggests that the popularity of complexity may be due to incentives: (1) researchers are rewarded for publishing in highly ranked journals, which favor complexity; (2) forecasters can use complex methods to provide forecasts that support decision-makers’ plans; and (3) forecasters’ clients may be reassured by incomprehensibility. Clients who prefer accuracy should accept forecasts only from simple evidence-based procedures.”

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