I’ve been part of the most powerful organization in the world. I’ve been part of startups. I’ve been a consultant to CEOs. I’ve started my own companies. I’ve hired, fired and hired again. I’ve managed investor money and invested in other companies.
If you do these things, there’s one thing you need:
You need simple.
You need simple because you’re working with complex data. You’re modeling and building forecasts and doing analytics. You’re making decisions and advising decisions that mean billions of dollars and thousands of lives. And then, you’re making sure the decisions are turned into action. So you can get a result.
For that, you need simple.
You need simple because simple is less likely to break. If a simple thing breaks, you can figure out where it broke. That’s why I use the Data-Analysis-Decision-Action sequence with organizations large and small. If something breaks, you can figure out if it was bad data, bad analysis, bad decisions or bad action based on good decisions (See A Spy’s Guide To Thinking for how this works).
As you go through that process, the quantity goes down.
It looks like this:
The closer you get to action, the less there is. The simpler things need to be. Go or no go. Do it or don't.
For strategy, that’s why I use the simple framework of Positive-Sum and Zero-Sum Games. You can solve most strategic issues by finding the sequence of games the other side is playing. It usually follows a simple pattern: They play the Positive-Sum Game of alliance to win a Zero-Sum Game of conflict to win people, places and/or things for their Positive-Sum Endgame. And you can use the same sequence to identify and communicate your strategy to your organization (see A Spy’s Guide To Strategy for how this works).
But some people don’t like simple.
Some people want complex. Some people want to describe the world down to the individual atom. Some want every calculation to take account of every molecular vibration. Some people always want more data.
Usually, that’s because they’re afraid of action. Or worse, they’re afraid of a result. They had bad results in the past. Maybe those bad results weren’t their fault. Maybe they were. It doesn’t matter because now they’re too afraid to get there. So they hide their fear by calling for more data. By slowing down analysis. By delaying decisions. So they don’t need to take action.
They don’t want simple. They reject simple. Because simple gets them closer to an action. Closer to a result. Which they don’t want. They make things more complex. They confuse people. Sometimes, they confuse themselves. Which they don’t mind. Because confusion keeps them away from action.
Sometimes, complexity is necessary. Sometimes, you need to capture a lot of complexity in what you do. But more often than not, it’s not necessary. More often than not, complexity is a tool for avoiding action.
Which is why I don’t work with middle managers. It’s not their fault, but middle managers are usually rewarded for avoiding action. Which means they don’t want simple. They don’t want action.
Instead, I’ll work with a development manager running an oil field. I’ll work with a business owner who wants to enter a new market. I’ll work with a non-profit leader who can improve lives. I’ll work with a division leader with a P&L. I’ll work with an individual who wants to find good investments. I’ll work with people who have the capability and will to get results.
I work with people who need results. Because people who need results know they need simple.
But getting to simple isn’t easy. It takes time to strip away the extras. It takes a hard nose to knock off the things that don’t matter. It takes a lot of work to get to simple. So you can make a decision. So you can take action. So you can get results.
Getting to simple takes time. Getting to simple takes resources. Getting to simple takes effort.
Sometimes, it takes revisions.
The first title of this was “Simplicity.”
But that was too complex.
I changed it to “Simple.”