Saturday, 23 September 2017

Simplicity lessons from Apple

I’ve just finished the immensely readable and idea-rich  Insanely Simple by Ken Segall. Ken, as the cover proclaims, coined the phrase iMac as part of his work for Apple in the agency Chiat/Day, and used his insights from working with Steve Jobs to distil its essence to one principle: simplicity.

Not being a tech titan with $120B in the bank myself, I was wondering on how to apply the principle to my own rather more limited sphere of interactions. This is what I’ve come up with, written in the form of advice to myself. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Simplicity is universal.
Whereas complexity requires specialised technical knowledge and even language to convey, simplicity is understood by all. People prefer simplicity. Even professionals who tolerate complexity as a price of doing business, even encourage learning curves as a barrier to their profession, prefer simplicity.

Simplicity is effective.
Direct and unadorned communications is unambiguous and therefore efficient. But being blunt without empathy is brutal and nasty. Steve Jobs had a reputation for being a tyrant because of his communications style. However, being unambiguous and unyielding on what success looked like was a key to his success.

Even if tyranny isn’t your thing, you should still think about simple communications. Your ideas will only be heard if they land and are internalised by your recipients. Get your ideas out quickly, simply, without adornment. There’s a difference between leading people to a conclusion, and doing the thinking for them, and people usually resent the latter.

So focus your communications. Deliver ideas with honesty, sympathy and simplicity. Encourage a conversation in order to get to a decision. Connect.

Simplicity is hard.
Complexity is easy. Complexity naturally arises when lots of people try to work together. Before you know it, there are processes to help navigate the complexity. These navigation skills become essential in order to get things done, and having good ideas becomes secondary. Simplicity requires placing trust in a small team of smart people, and empowering them to make decisions.

Because complexity is easy, complex answers are often the first answers. Simple answers will require more thought, more effort, and more focus. Focus is not just concentrating on one thing, but also not doing all the other important things that need to get done.

Simplicity is more than good enough. Stick to your vision, and you’ll go from good to great.

Simplicity is ongoing.
A simple idea is not a goal. Making every idea simple doesn’t necessarily make turn them into good ideas. There are plenty of simple bad ideas out there (sharks with lasers?). It’s better to start from a good idea, apply the principles of simplicity, and end up with a great idea.

It will take ongoing investment of time and resource to continue to live with the problem, peel back layers of complexity, to get to an elegant simple solution. It will also bravery to trust that you’ll be given, or give yourself, the space to go from minimum viable to the best answer.

Getting to simple requires having enough good will in the bank to survive living with the problem for a while. If you’re not Apple with a devout fanbase willing to forgive every iPhone 8 as long as there’s an upcoming iPhone X, then you’re going to need to work hard investing in your network and relationships.

You’re going to also need to work hard investing in yourself. Simplicity needs to be authentic to your own personal values, so spend time understanding them. Having everything come from the same place will give the outcomes coherence.

So simplicity is more than a single attribute. You’ll have to hit everything with the simple stick, and keep doing it, to achieve simplicity. The end is worthwhile, because simplicity is powerful.

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