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When we face complexity, we have a choice between a simple solution and a complex solution.

Donald Sull

Over the last few months, I made a dent in my book reading list and now have a sizable backlog of potential blogs. One book I particularly enjoyed was ‘Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World’ by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt. The authors use a wide range of examples – from medical care to college football to complexity theory – to show that simple rules often lead to better outcomes than complex analysis. A simple example of a simple rule: burglars reduce the likelihood of being caught by avoiding houses with a car parked outside.

Simple rules work because they are easy to remember; “when information is limited and time is short, simple rules make it fast and easy for people […] to make sound choices.” Simple rules provide consistency for teams but allow for some flexibility to pursue new opportunities or explore boundary conditions. From this point of view, I think of these rules as heuristics – mental shortcuts that reduce our cognitive load when making a decision. As I learned more than 30 years ago from the classic textbook ‘Judgment Under Uncertainty’, heuristic methods are best used when finding an optimal solution is impractical. The authors provide this explanation:

Simple rules are shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information. The rules aren’t universal — they’re tailored to the particular situation and the person using them.

With so many compelling examples of how simplicity is better than complexity, the authors provide some guidelines on what makes a good set of simple rules. Here is their advice:

  • Limit to a handful. Capping the number of rules makes them easy to remember and maintains a focus on what matters most.
  • Tailor to the person or organization using them. College athletes and middle-aged dieters may both rely on simple rules to decide what to eat, but their rules will be very different.
  • Apply to a well-defined activity or decision. Rules that cover multiple activities or choices end up as vague platitudes, such as “Do your best” and “Focus on customers.”

As I wrote last year, Complexity Kills. Simple rules are one weapon to kill complexity.

This blog was originally posted on Manage by Walking Around on October 18, 2015.
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