There was a very interesting article in Sunday’s FT about the value of simplicity. The article was publicising a new book, Think Simple, by Ken Segall. Segall served for 10 years as creative director for Steve Jobs, the supreme “evangelist for simplicity at all levels of working life.
In the book, as well as in its forerunner Insanely Simple, Segall tells of how simplicity became a core value within Apple. It is stressed that this does not necessarily correspond with something being easier or cheaper. “Often it requires more time, more money and more energy. It might require you to step on a few toes. But more times than not, it will lead to measurably better results”.
Apple was not the first company to learn the value of simplicity. It was simply able to popularise it and live it better than anyone else. Jack Welch at General Electric was another believer in the corrosive effects of complexity upon products, people and companies. For Welch, speed of change and execution was key to General Electric becoming a business powerhouse once again. “If we’re not simple, we can’t be fast … and if we’re not fast, we can’t win”. Segall admits that the same applies for Apple, arguing that “simplicity not only enables Apple to revolutionise – it enables Apple to revolutionise repeatedly”.
The results of this philosophy were remarkably similar at both Apple and General Electric. “Simplicity”, Jack Welch said, ” to an engineer, means clean, functional winning designs … In marketing, it might manifest itself as clear, unencumbered proposals … And on an individual, interpersonal level, it would take the form of plain-speaking, directness, honesty”. Jobs, of course, was famous for his own bluntness. Segall recalls the first bit of feedback he received from Jobs on his agency’s advertising work: “I really like the TV you’ve been doing. The print is really sh*t”.
However, when one looks at the work of Jobs at Apple and Welch at GE, it becomes clear that simplicity is not easy. Welch took years to rip apart GE’s obsession with bureaucracy and corporate planning that was slowing the industrial titan to a crawl. Upon his return to the company in the mid-90s, Jobs was forced to terminate product lines, sack engineers, and striple Apple to its core to return it to profitability. In both cases, vested interests had to be smashed, people removed, entire departments or even subsidiaries shut down.
Welch and Jobs were both simplicity doctrinaires. They were extreme. But that’s because they understood the inference of the famous phrase, ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid’ – which is that there is a natural tendency to over-complicate things. It’s easier to set up layers of bureaucracy and paperwork than be candid and get real feedback from customers, employees and markets.
Fast growing companies are particularly susceptible. At Spirit Ventures, we have struggled at times to restrain the temptation to create greater complexity. It’s a battle than requires constant vigilance. Our aim is that simplicity becomes an indispensable aspect of our culture, as habitual as that first cup of tea in the morning.