March 29, 2019

A checklist inspired by science

Mention science to businesspeople and you’re likely to get a less than enthusiastic reaction. Isn’t science the realm of white-coated madmen with wild hair and bubbling test tubes, out of touch with real life and the world around them?

"For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life."

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935)

US Supreme Court Justice

Having worked many years as a theoretical and computational physicist, I can assure you that this is not the case. Science is all about the search for simple models, elegant solutions that explain complex matters, the ultimate quest for simplicity in a world that is anything but. Science helps us solve the puzzles that the world throws at us in a pioneering way. It advances understanding through the application of methods that are concrete, straightforward and have a proven track record.

But the scientific approach can be of fundamental value to business, too. With today’s challenges of digitalization, automation and robotization, the vast reams of data at our fingertips and breakthrough technologies of artificial intelligence and virtual reality snapping at our heels, the need for simplicity in business is greater than ever. Complexity is growing and our natural inclination is to match complex problems with complex solutions. Yet, if we want to remain relevant for stakeholders and continue delivering value, we must strive for precisely the opposite: clarity, transparency and – yes – simplicity.

In this article we suggest a checklist inspired by science, a tool for ensuring that your proposed business solution is driven by simplicity. We call this the S.I.M.P.L.E. checklist. Each letter of the acronym describes a key criterion that your solution must meet. Taken together, the six criteria describe a solution that is truly fit for purpose in today’s complex world.

In search of simplicity, beyond complexity

S – Solution-driven

In science, everything starts with a problem statement, and very often what we are looking for in the first instance is a solution. But no solution to a problem is “simple” in absolute terms. Newton’s laws of motion may be a simple way to describe how an apple falls from the tree, but they are not a simple solution for describing the curvature of light beams by black holes.

To take an example from our modern world, the iPhone is generally praised for being a thing of beauty, an exemplar of simplicity. And, yes, it certainly is a simple solution for making calls, browsing the Web, listening to music, and so on. However, it is not a simple solution for the problem of just telling the time.

Before finding a solution we need to define the problem clearly, to ask questions, and then ask some more – something that scientists understand well. This certainly isn’t new but in a world of seemingly endless choice, opportunity and change, it becomes critical. Meanwhile, almost every problem can be solved, but choosing the right problem to tackle must be paramount.

I – Intuitive

With the benefit of hindsight – that most accurate of sciences – simple solutions often seem intuitive. So, yes, it really is OK to settle on the solution even if it feels inevitable. It doesn’t always have to be fireworks. On the other hand, you shouldn’t settle until you are at the point where there is nothing left but the last piece of the puzzle to be slotted into place.

Big problems do not necessarily require big answers. Take the lines of customers waiting impatiently to check in at a hotel front desk – the last thing they want after a many-hour drive or overnight flight. Hotel heavyweight Marriott invested in mobile check-in and freed up front-desk staff to meet and greet, greatly improving the all-important customer experience. Simple.

Another example. In a certain high-rise building in New York there were endless complaints about elevators operating too slowly. Here, the key was defining the problem. It turned out that it wasn’t the speed of the elevators that was problematic, but rather the fact that the elevator halls were claustrophobic, which made people feel that they were waiting too long. Installing mirrors in the spaces solved the problem. A solution that was as simple as it is intuitive.

M – Meaningful

Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was faced with a problem: how to deal with the Communists. Speaking at the Moscow Summit in May 1988, Reagan delivered his now classic strategy statement: “Here is my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.”

As an exercise in spin, it worked – these words have become among Reagan’s most quotable. And on the surface, the strategy seems staggeringly simple. No doubt, at the moment that Reagan made his statement, the US had a clear and neatly sketched out strategy for the Cold War. However, given the seriousness of problem, you could argue that it sounds trite, even a little childish. Is it really meaningful or does it just rephrase the problem statement?

All too often, company mission statements featuring words such as “digital” and “customer-centric” are similarly problematic. Like Reagan’s Cold War strategy statement, they are communication gimmicks. But unlike Reagan’s statement, they are intended to serve as practical guidance for decisions and actions. Crafting mission or strategy statements is clearly an art in itself, and everybody needs a powerful mission statement. But companies must avoid spin without substance and make sure their strategies are meaningful, looking at the problem from all angles and solving all aspects of it.

P – Practical

Solutions need to be practical by which we mean achievable, detailed, concrete and actionable. Only then are they truly impactful. Find concrete ideas and they will stick.

A good example is approach taken by Danish consumer electronics company Bang & Olufsen (B&O). In true Scandinavian style they deliver a lesson in solving a business problem with simplicity. In a sea of competition from other makers of consumer electronics, you might think that their focus would be the quality of the sound. But you’d be wrong. In fact, B&O’s focus is on relaxing and enjoying – on “leaning back”. This is now a recognized business strategy, as discussed in John Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity. Being able to lean back and relax in our competitive society, he writes, seems out of reach, but B&O’s practical design approach enables you to do so.

Apple plays this brilliantly too. Its slick user experience is embedded into every product. Users know what they are getting; pick up a new Apple device and fans can navigate it immediately, the manual “is already there”. It’s perfectly simple – and consummately practical.

L – Light

Another core scientific objective is to find light solutions that require minimum effort. In science we apply Ockham’s razor, the philosophical principle that says that when there are complex alternatives to solving a problem, the simpler version is always preferable. While theoretically string theory could be used to describe an apple falling to the ground, Newton’s laws are better because they require minimum effort.

We have seen that business solutions should be meaningful and practical. But those two attributes alone don’t always bring us closer to the essence of what we are trying to solve. With their weighty, concrete, practical detail, they may even do the opposite. So, once your business solution is sufficiently meaningful and practical, it’s time to step back, take your time and squint. Light business solutions are easy to comprehend and memorize; they are viral in nature and able to reach into all corners of an organization.

E – Elegant

Effective solutions are elegant. However, the search for elegance should never be a standalone criterion, but rather a sort of litmus test. American physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who won the Nobel Physics Prize for his work on elementary particles, provides inspiration here. He writes: “…it is well known that a theory in elementary particle physics is more likely to be successful in describing and predicting observations if it is simple and elegant.”

To be elegant, says the Oxford Dictionary, is to be graceful and stylish, pleasingly clever but simple. Elegance also implies sophistication. Finding a simple solution to a problem statement requires deep expertise about the topic – which means bringing all unconscious experience, from all corners of the business, to the table.

Take travel, for example. In a jungle of confusing service propositions combined with overwhelming choice, fare aggregator and metasearch engine base their success story on elegantly solving the challenge of finding the right hotel. They were the first to combine the broadest possible choice with easy-to-navigate filters – a winningly elegant solution to a vexing customer pain point.

Elegance works as a litmus test because sometimes there just isn’t time for the tricky balancing act of making your solution meaningful, practical and light. Very often, we find that if a solution comes across as elegant then more than half the battle is won.

Simple isn’t easy

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Leonardo da Vinci (attrib.) (1452-1519)

The S.I.M.P.L.E. checklist is effective, but meeting all six criteria isn’t easy. Simplicity goes against the natural tendency within organizations towards complexity – the “villains in the game”, such as the endowment effect and linear thinking, as we discussed in our recent Think:Act publication Detox your business: A hands-on approach to succeed in complex markets. Here are just some of challenges we often run up against:

  • Lack of time and resources
    This makes it difficult to tick off all the complex criteria with the right amount of detail
  • Ego
    Sometimes egos get in the way. To take just one example, the more important people feel, the more status symbols they tend to gather. Those status symbols often take the form of unnecessary meetings, special administrative processes to arrange appointments or privileged office space. All of this adds to complexity, draining resources and deflecting attention from the real goal of simplicity
  • The endowment effect
    Sometimes decisions are irrationally swayed. In behavioral economics, this is known as the endowment effect: the idea that once you own something you are willing to pay more for it than you would if you didn’t own it. A well-known experiment by Kahneman, Knetsch and Tahler divided a group of people into buyers and sellers of a coffee mug. It found that the people in the group given ownership of the mug placed a much higher value on it those who didn’t ·
  • Linear thinking
    This is the trap of thinking in a straight line, from one point to another. It can lead us to think that big problems require big solutions. Intuitive, but wrong! As the economist Schumacher put it in his 1973 essay Small is Beautiful: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Finding the sweet spot

Faced with too much information, the decision-making network in the human brain fails to compute. Businesses have an opportunity here to help swamped consumers cut through clutter, by simplifying the choice. Amazon’s simple and effective solution is to both understand and anticipate their needs and meet those needs in an efficient and relevant way.

Keeping operating models simple is a quick way to achieving competitive edge. Citibank’s Citi Simplicity card promising “no late fees ever” is one example. In 2005, Ford’s “keep it simple” approach to lower supply drove higher demand and better pricing. Lexmark’s “uncomplicated” campaign made clear promises. The application of simplicity, and the timeless beauty that it engenders, has always been valued; from IKEA to Nike, from Expedia to Southwest Airlines there are plenty of past examples in business to prove it.

In essence, then, the more complexity that there is in the market, the more simplicity stands out. Generally speaking, simplification is about distillation. It’s about filtering all your ideas to extract only the meaningful. Finding the sweet spot – a solution that matches all six criteria on the S.I.M.P.L.E. checklist – is clearly not simple. It takes time and effort. But that’s not altogether a bad thing: Scientists like to dwell on things, and in business as in science, good things come to those who take the time to make them happen.

Further reading