Simple Rules: A book review by Bob Morris

Simple RulesSimple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World
Donald N. Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2015)

How and why simple rules help to accelerate personal growth and executive development

First, I want to share two of my favorite quotations on the subject of simplicity. First, from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” And from Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.”

Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt explain the power of simple rules in terms of several substantial benefits. Here are five.

1. They save resources, especially time and energy.
2. They can be adjusted the given circumstances.
3. They help to eliminate confusion and consequent hesitation.
4. They provide a framework within which to improvise.
5. They allow flexible collaboration, especially under duress.

I cannot recall a prior time that was more complicated and more stressful than it is today for people to meet all manner of obligations in all areas of their lives. Moreover, on average, each of us receives about 8,500 “messages” a day that compete for our attention. Sull and Eisenhardt cite Warren Weaver whose pioneer research in the field of complexity (much of it conducted at the Rockefeller Foundation) reveals several valuable insights. Sixty years ago, “Weaver argued that simple and uncertain problems have largely been solved, and that the greatest challenges of the future would be problems of complexity. He was right.” I presume to add, in this context, that one of the greatest challenges now is to simplify the process by which to solve complex problems. This is what Jon Katzenbach has in mind when suggesting the most difficult challenges for change agents is to change how they think about change.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Sull and Eisenhardt’s coverage:

o The Discovery of Complexity (Pages 7-12)
o Simple Rules for a Complex World (12-17)
o Simple Rules Produce Better Decisions (32-38)
o Boundary Rules (50-57)
o Stopping Rules (62-70)
o How-To Rules (74-82)
Example How to Thrive in a Complex World
o Natural Selection (99-102)
o Distilling Scientific Knowledge (110-113)
o Studying Simple Rules in Action (121-124)
o Identify a Bottleneck (130-137)
o Craft the Simple Rules (137-144)
o Crafting Simple Rules That Work for You (151-155)
o Rules to Win Friends and Influence People (166-169)
Comment: If you are inauthentic, forget it. Phonies have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
o Crafting Better Simple Rules (173-180)
o How Simple Rules Improve (180-186)
o Changing the Vision, Changing the Rules (205-209)
o Changing the Bottlenecks, Rewriting the Rules (213-221)
o Overcoming the Barriers to Simplicity (224-227)

Those who read this book with appropriate care will soon realize that Sull and Eisenhardt are offering simple rules on how to formulate and then apply the simple rules needed to thrive in a complex world. I agree with them: “Fighting complexity is an ongoing battle that can wear us down. Disheartened, people tolerate complicated solutions that don’t work, or cling to overly simplistic narratives (‘Climate change is a myth,’ for example, or ‘Globalization is bad’) that deny the interdependencies characterizing modern life. Simple rules can be a powerful weapon in this fight.”

Whatever their size and nature may be, all organizations need to follow Einstein`s advice and make everything as simple as possible but no simpler. To achieve that worthy objective, organizations will need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt wrote this book to open their eyes “to the myriad opportunities they have to tackle complexity with simplicity, and to provide concrete guidance on how to seize these opportunities.” Almost all of the information, insights, and counsel they need are provided in this volume. Bravo!

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