Simplicity is key


“Do simple things well,” Sutton says. “It sounds easy, but it’s really hard. Get rid of dysfunctional politics. You can see how that has tormented large American companies, like the auto industry. Let outliers into your organization; welcome diversity. The fact is, Steve Jobs couldn’t get hired in most American companies, much less be the CEO. He couldn’t pass through the interview screens. Stay curious. Cultivate peripheral vision in your organization. Learn how to reframe your own offerings by looking both broadly and deeply across other industries. Recognize what you don’t know and find others who know more than you. Build a team at the top that has real power and talent. And don’t underestimate the power of strong cultural control. Find a way to create the old-fashioned unity of purpose.”

The quote is from an article by Alan M. Webber, former editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, called “How Apple changed Computers and Computing.” He is citing Dr. Bob Sutton of Stanford University.

Simple things

That little paragraph is fascinating. Sutton begins with simplicity. Do simple things well. And I wholeheartedly agree. There are so many simple things that can make or break your day, your project or your relationship. Those little things include saying “thank you” and meaning it. I listen to people on the phone and I can see people smile at the other end just by hearing their voice and how they say it. There is no difference when you do it face to face – mean it or don’t say it.

Simple things are more than words. Simple things are most processes at work. How easy is it to make a request for annual leave? Do you have to hunt for a form? Found it in the cupboard of the department admin, fill it out, have your boss sign and have it returned from HR because it’s out of date? I had that experience although it’s been a while. These days we have an online system, select the days and click submit. Done. Easy. Even better from the bosses view. He gets a notification, clicks on the link, sees how much leave I actually have and can view my leave request in relation to the other guys in the department. Click on approve – done. I wish all processes were that simple. Lots of politics involved where different departments have data ownership. Then it gets complex and paper rules. In a reasonably large organisation that means it doesn’t get changed easily.


I love the bell curve. 68% are the big mass doing things as they always been done or changing the process because it changed. Outliers are the 2.1% at the fringes. These guys are ahead of the curve and at the other end dragging a change as long as humanly possible. Outliers can make you think and they can make you cry. They show a new way and critically examine what is wrong with the current process. They also critically examine what’s wrong with the new one.

Making good use of the curiosity these guys bring to the mix is a challenge and an opportunity. In my experience they are full of ideas and not afraid to challenge anything.


Make things as simple as possible but not simpler, said Einstein. Some systems are complex. People are complex. Every single one of them. Because I said 68% are behaving in a similar way doesn’t mean these guys are simple. They behave for a particular process or in a defined environment in that way. Football players for example have a strong desire to score a goal individually. As a team they want to win the game. They follow the tactics of their coach. Each has given a task, defend, attack, goal keeping, distributing and so on. They follow the simple rules of football. Although the game plan can very complex and diverse depending on the opposition, the available players or the upcoming schedule.

Complex systems are made up of simple things. Control the ball, pass the ball, shooting, and tackling. And the same happens in a work environment. Specialists know specific tasks well but all know the rules of organisational behaviour: Listen before voicing your opinion, ask to understand, share your information, do your tasks on time, raise awareness of bottlenecks and shortcomings, learn to keep abreast in your field, … Basic and simple things that coming together build a complex system.


It’s the leadership and management of such a system that makes an organisation succeed or fail.

Look at the conductor of an orchestra.

And it all starts with doing the simple things right.


2 comments on “Simplicity is key

  1. Anthlis says:

    Interesting post! I like the “do simple things well”. If it’s too complex, then it needs breaking down so that they become simple elements.

    I don’t agree with the “It’s the leadership and management of such a system that makes an organisation succeed or fail” part though.

    That sentence alone tells us nothing about how the system works. Any system is made up of a structure and behaviour. The leadership and management belong to the structure. Frank, an organisation of ours in common has a new structure, but crucially the behaviour has not been defined. Without this, it won’t matter a jot about the structure; the system will still fail. A competent manager/leader cannot succeed in a system with optimal structures but with ill defined behaviours. Do you agree?The behaviour of an orchestra is well defined; a group of people or elements of a system that are all working towards a common goal of producing music together. The conductor could be the best in the World but would still fail if the orchestra cannot play music.

    I discovered your blog through Linked-In. Keep up the good work!

    • Frank G says:

      Thank you Anthony!

      I like your critique – really! Albeit, I have a different opinion. You are correct, leadership and management belong to structure in terms of its institutional value. And in terms of the execution it is behavioural. As you pointed out, the orchestra will fail if the members can’t play. The same goes if the conductor is not up to the job. Hence you pointed out a leader cannot succeed if the players don’t follow the rules. In such a situation, I believe, the leader/manager has to take a step back and start with the basics. Discover if the people don’t have the skills / knowledge / ability to do their job and then put a training and upskilling program into place or if the people lack the attitude to do a good job. In the latter case there is either a structural problem that drives such behaviour, the individuals are at the wrong job or have never experienced being a member in a well working team. Just imagine the difference playing football with Barcelona or a local Christchurch club. It is a system as you pointed out although the leader / manager in both teams is responsible and capable to make a great team from the resources he has and his desire to make it happen.

      Thanks again for your comment! Looking forward to another reply.

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