Winning Through Simplicity

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” said Leonardo da Vinci. Yet in today’s modern business world we are entwined in complexity–matrixed organizations, convoluted supply chains, and complicated product lines. Use these 3 tactics to cut through this Gordian Knot of incomprehensibility and focus on simplification.


“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” So said Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most accomplished man who lived during the Renaissance. Although he was many things (scientist, artist, mathematician, inventor, cartographer and writer to name a few) he saw the power of simplicity in making his works both useful and elegant.

Yet in today’s modern business world we are entwined in complexity. The 2008 financial meltdown and our current economic problems can be traced to the trading of financial instruments that were so complex that only a handful of people in the world actually understood what they were. For those of us in large companies, matrixed organizations, convoluted supply chains, complicated product lines and elaborate advertising campaigns often conspire to make work difficult for us and working with us impossible for customers. To cut through this Gordian Knot of incomprehensibility, executives and managers need to focus on simplifying their business in three ways:

1) Simplify Your Product: We all know that the inherent simplicity and ease-of-use of Apple products is a key element to the company’s success. And Google’s home page, with its basic input box centered in the middle of an otherwise empty page, has made it the number one search engine in the world and a financial powerhouse. In the more mundane world of weight-loss, Weight Watchers has made it simple to lose weight by allocating points to each type of food, enabling you to easily track your intake and exercise all online. They even having a smartphone barcode app you can use in the grocery store to see the point values of different foods you are considering. 

2) Simplify Your Message: When Corona entered the U.S. beer market, it didn’t have a lot going for it. It had no special taste, no awards it could point to and came from a country that wasn’t exactly known for producing beer. But, by focusing like a laser on the simple message that a Corona is a vacation in a bottle, it became very successful. If you’re trying to tell your customers about the five benefits of your product, drop four of them and focus on the one that differentiates you the most.

3) Simplify Your Business Model: In the highly-complicated airline industry so many carriers were unprofitable that American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall said, “If the Wright brothers were alive today, Orville would have to lay off Wilbur.” Yet, when Southwest Airlines entered the fray it was able to gain share quickly and profitably. One key reason for its success was Southwest focused on keeping things simple. For example, it flies only one type of airplane, the Boeing 737. This means their pilots and mechanics only have to be trained on one kind of plane. Also, if one 737 has mechanical difficulties it can be easily replaced by an exact replica. Lastly, replacement parts inventory is minimized. This simple concept enables Southwest to have better customer service while simultaneously cutting costs.

In today’s interconnected, high-tech, 24/7 world, some complexity is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean we should allow it to grow like kudzu and smother our enterprise. We should instead follow the advice of another great thinker, Henry David Thoreau, who famously said, “Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.” Only by seeking every opportunity to do so can we enable our organizations and people to achieve their full potential. 


[Image: Flickr user Yogendra174]

About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo.