Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity

Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, written by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, is an excellent reminder to all of us to rail against complexity and keep things simple. Even though I summarize some of the key points below, I still encourage you to pick up a copy and read this timely book.

The Crisis of Complexity

  • Complexity wreaks havoc on business, government and finance making life more difficult and confusing for everyone
  • Complexity is subtle; as Joseph Tainter suggests: “complexity creeps up on you.”
  • Complexity is counter-intuitive
    • More information, more “background”, or more explanation rarely lead to greater simplicity and clarity

Breaking Through to Simplicity

  • As Warren Buffet’s long time business partner Charlie Mingus said: “making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple… that’s creativity.”
  • Simple can be a differentiating factor in a world beset by complexity

Three Principles of Simplicity

  • Empathize – perceive others’ needs and expectations
  • Distill – Boil down and customize what’s being offered to meet needs.
  • Clarify – Make the offering easier to understand, use and benefit
  • Empathy
    • Empathy is more than the standard definition of understanding another’s feelings. It requires an emphasis on the understanding of another’s thought processes, decision making strategies and attention spans.
    • As the English poet Shelley remarked: “a man, to be greatly good … must put himself in the place of another and of many others; their pains and pleasures… must become his own.” Percy Bysshe Shelley
    • One simple point of empathy so often neglected is to allow a customer to speak to an informed customer service representative within the company.
  • Distill
    • Companies need to make informed decisions on behalf of their customers
      • To simplify is to curate and edit – lessen the options and choices faced by others
      • For many progressive companies, this results in having a good – better – best product line offering.
    • Companies need to design and lay-out their communication simply and intuitively.
      • Apple is the exemplar of this type of design in their products and their marketing
      • “Good design captures customer’s trust by disappearing.” Jack Dorsey, Cofounder of Twitter
    • Let customers decide how much information they want
      • At a glance
      • Preferred
      • In depth
  • Clarify
    • Too much information is a prime source of complexity
    • To achieve clarity, we must apply design to information to make as intuitive as possible
      • Organize – extract the most meaningful information – figuring out what matters, and the order in which it matters.
      • Emphasize – create titles and sub-titles and bold, highlight, etc. to point out key points
      • Visualize
    • When communicating, we need to:
      • Separate information into discrete ideas or steps
      • Think sequentially
      • Summarize longer material
      • Hold back and de-emphasize less important information
      • Get rid of what’s unimportant
      • Write clearly
        • “The secret to more effective writing is simple: talk to your reader. Pretend the person who’ll read your letter or report is sitting across from you. Be informal. Relax.” Rudolf Flesch, Author of Say What You Mean
        • “The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.” George Eliot
    • Clear communication often
      • Adds value to products and services
      • Leads to better informed and more satisfied customers
      • Creates a higher level of trust and, as a result, brand loyalty

How Complex Organizations Can Simplify

  • Simplifying requires a commitment from the top to create a “culture of simplicity.”
    • “Great leaders are often great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” General Colin Powell
  • Take a customer first approach in order to break through the complexity that is naturally created by silos
  • Beware that the “curse of knowledge” can make the complex appear to an expert to be simple.
    • “Familiarity with a particular area or domain leads to a particular kind of myopia that diminishes the ability to see creeping complexity.” Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn
    • Bring in people who are not insiders or subject experts to be a fresh set of eyes and ears and provide a perspective closer to that of the customer.


  • Fight the forces of complexity in your business and life and simplify
  • When starting a new project or idea, keep it simpler than you would like

    • “You can always make it more complex later.”
  • Simple is smart
    • It can help differentiate your product and service
    • It can help you get the more important done

About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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