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The Laws of Simplicity

| April 8, 2014

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, The Laws of Simplicity, is drawn from John Maeda’s book by the same title, and the associated website.  Maeda is President of the Rhode Island School of Design.  He is an artist, designer, and technologist.  Before going to RISD in 2008, he was a professor and associate director of research at MIT’s Media Laboratory.  Most recently he became associated with the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as a design partner.  Business Week noted that he has major relationships with five different organizations across five different industries.  Greg Anderson, MOR Senior Consultant and Leadership Coach, recently read The Laws of Simplicity and suggested that the topic of simplicity was important and that it be the focus of a Tuesday Reading.  The result is the essay which follows which is a collaboration between the two of us. We all want something that is simple and easy to use and at the same time also does all the complex things that we might ever want it to do.  Maeda’s book gives us ten “laws” for balancing simplicity and complexity in business, technology, design, and life.  These guidelines actually suggest ways of “needing less” and actually “getting more. ” And, they lead us to actually explore a redefinition of the concept of “improved” so that it doesn’t always mean something more, something added on.Maeda’s Ten Laws go by simple words:  Reduce, Organize, Time, Learn, Differences, Context, Emotion, Trust, Failure, and The One.  All of them are important to us, particularly as we work to design organizations, systems, interactions with customers, etc.  For our purposes here, we want to take particular note of three of the laws:Law 3 – Time:  Savings in time feels like simplicity.  Maeda notes that the average person spends at least an hour a day waiting in line, not counting all the additional time we wait when there is no line.  Some are subtle like waiting for search results to appear or waiting as our request works through a process.  We often work hard to reduce process times because we know that waiting is frustrating and costly, and seen as complexity.  Savings in time feels like simplicity.Law 4 – Learn:  Knowledge makes everything simpler.  Maeda’s example here is the screw.  Just mate the groves at the top of the screw’s head with the appropriate tip of a screw driver and off you go.  But, which way do you turn.  It’s this little bit of knowledge – right or clockwise to tighten and left or counter-clockwise to loosen – that makes all the difference.  Knowing how makes resolving the situation easier and faster.  But, sometimes the difficulty here is that it takes time to learn and sometimes that seems like a waste (particularly in the moment) although it often pays large dividends into the future.Law 10 – The One.  Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.  Maeda uses three simple concepts to describe this:1.  Away – More appears less by simply moving it far, far away.  As examples, think about the search capability that exists somewhere but is accessed through the simple Google search box.  Or, the storage capability in the cloud somewhere that we access through Box or DropBox or …2.  Open – Oneness simplifies complexity.  Being open can stimulate creativity through collaboration and create something greater than could be created by you or your organization alone.  Think, for example, about open source software.  Or, think about open collaborative relationships within your own organization.3.  Power – Use less, gain more.  Here, Maeda is focusing on energy and he notes correctly that all or our rechargeable devices, left uncharged, will eventually need to be recharged.  But, the magic is that over time battery technology has led to batteries that have a larger storage capacity per unit weight and volume and to electronics with greater functionality and higher operating speeds and lower energy requirements.  This is all good.  But energy use goes beyond electronics.  In fact, we should think of it in terms of any resource and evaluate how we can use less and gain more.   Maeda’s thoughts about simplicity, reducing complexity, and achieving greater clarity in our own leadership “design” are helpful navigational points in our sometimes stormy and complicated world.  It would be a worthwhile effort to take a look at these laws and determine how they may assist your efforts to simplify and become additional attributes to use in your leadership development..  .  .  .     jim and greg