The Art of Simplicity

gombadmin Blog

By Kristen Cox, GOMB Executive Director

Our world is filled with organizational cultures that seem to thrive in complexity. Oftentimes, we take pride in the intricacy and sophistication of our systems. In contrast, I’ve come to believe that the volumes of data, charts, and reports our organizations produce often result in clutter rather than clarity. Writing a one page essay, for example, can be much more difficult than writing a five page essay because we have to crystallize our thinking and inject meaning into every word. Complexity can mask ignorance and prevent us from seeing the forest for the trees by overwhelming us with unnecessary components and particulars. In contrast, simplicity can bring clarity and reveal what is truly important for us to understand and act upon. Picasso’s “The Bull” lithograph is an excellent illustration of what it takes to attain simplicity or the essence of something.

The Bull

Picasso produced multiple iterations of his bull before arriving at his final version. He progressed from a granular and detailed lithograph to his final creation—a series of simple lines that capture the essence of a bull. As you can see, he paid just as much attention to what he could exclude as he did to what to include.

In his book “Getting Real,” Jason Friedman, the founder of 37Signals, reinforces the need to cut out the extraneous. Friedman is a big believer that less is more and staying focused on the essentials is critical. He writes, “Beware of the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach…throw in every decent idea that comes along and you’ll just wind up with a half-*** version of your product…”

Stick to what is truly essential. Some good ideas can be tabled. Focus on whatever you think your product should be and then cut it in half. Pare down a system or product’s features until you are left with only the most essential pieces. Then do it again and again.

Getting to the essence or heart of your organization or work is not necessarily easy, but it is possible with the right mind set and tools. Here are a few ideas that will help us think “simpler.”

  • Be absolutely clear on your purpose and the unique mission you are trying to fulfill
  • Ask your customers and employees what they don’t want instead of always asking what they do want
  • Consider what you would stop doing and what components are mission-critical if you had half the time and half the budget
  • Give just as much time thinking about what you should stop doing as you do to what you should start doing
  • Remember that “no” is a perfectly acceptable response

Simple doesn’t necessarily equate to easy. Getting to the simpler solution can require hard work and rigorous thinking but the investment is well worth it. If Einstein can boil down the equivalence of energy and mass to emc2, it is possible for us to distill our work into more elegant and simpler concepts.