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The long, hard road to simple

Achieving simplicity isn’t easy – but these techniques can help
Marketers seduced by simple are less enthusiastic about getting into bed with the Hydra-headed, multi-limbed creature of complexity
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards is the current PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Marketers bent on taking steps to simplify their consumers’ lives might feel less keen if they were familiar with Helen’s law. Though little known as yet, this is my tilt at posterity – my hubristic bid to join those eponymous others who, following some stroke of revelation, have lent their names to an incontrovertible principle of commercial life.

There’s Moore’s law, for example, which states that computing power doubles every two years. Or the Peter Principle – that employees rise to the level of their own incompetence. And, of course, the daily-proven Murphy’s law: if something can go wrong, it will.

Helen’s law can be stated thus: “The degree of simplicity of an outcome is inversely correlated with the simplicity of the process that led to it.” Or – to put it more simply – simple processes don’t lead to simple solutions.

The ambition to gain competitive edge by streamlining some aspect of the customer experience often surfaces in a workshop – but that very setting is a signal that marketers are not taking complexity seriously. The workshop is a place for big “Why not?” ideas – fun and unchallenging to come up – but not for the myriad “Yes, buts” that should accompany them. Doubts are discouraged; naysayers denied. Details can be worked out later.

But they often aren’t. When the vaunted “one-stop service” or “breakthrough box” turns out to be something of a compromise, it’s because the team was unprepared to hunt down, and find solutions to, every irksome potential snag along the road to launch.

Another sign of a team not coming to terms with complexity is the urge to tame multifaceted problems by chopping them into smaller, “manageable” chunks. But, as Nassim Taleb warns, it’s the interactions between elements that you need to watch out for, since, in complex systems, “the ensemble behaves in ways not predicted by its components”.

The way through this one is to embrace a process called “Systems thinking”. Its governing principle is that you do not chunk down but instead “go up a level of abstraction”, to explore the interdependencies and nested feedback loops in the system as a whole. Since markets and consumers are innately complex, marketers should do more of this. If they don’t, it’s either because they haven’t heard about it – or because it’s bloody hard.

There’s an even more fundamental process flaw that denies teams the elegance of outcome they crave: a too shallow defining of the cause of the current inadequacy. Often, if a product or service isn’t quite right, marketers will probe for a proximate reason and attempt to solve that. But the true issue may be buried several layers deep.

Japanese industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno devised a system to counter this myopia: the “Five whys”. You ask a big question, get an answer, but don’t stop there. Instead, picking up from answer number one, you ask: “So why that?” And you iterate a minimum five times.

I’d like marketers to try a dilute version of this when the latest consumer research findings are in: go back to the previous ones, and the ones before that, probe for inconsistencies and ask why they might be there. The process can be more revealing than any of the top-line findings, as it forces the team to think rather than just react. But, with the latest cache of “learnings” hot in their hands, few marketers tend to be up for that kind of distraction.

In the end, then, here’s the problem. Marketers seduced by simple are less enthusiastic about getting into bed with the Hydra-headed, multi-limbed creature of complexity – which they must first acknowledge, then embrace and finally dismember, if they are to achieve the purity of their sleek ambitions.

Few try, and of those that do, some don’t make it out alive. So it is right we take inspiration from, and pay homage to, those with a record of success – those businesses that sculpt products and services of frictionless elegance by confronting the awesome complexity the rest of us don’t want to think about.

Amazon. DHL. Muji. And – of course – Apple. These are the brands to learn from, to scour for their glimpses of wisdom. In fact, wasn’t it the late Steve Jobs who said: “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

Oh, hang on a minute, so it isn’t Helen’s law after all. It was Steve’s law all along. My tilt at posterity will have to wait. Nothing is simple.

Simple wisdom

“Simplicity is the outcome of technical subtlety. It is the goal, not the starting point.”
Maurice Saatchi

“Graphical elegance is often found in simplicity of design and complexity of data.”
Edward Tufte

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Leonardo da Vinci

“As beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration.”
Laura Nyro

“There is always a well-known solution for every human problem:  neat, plausible and wrong.”
HL Mencken

“Hack away at the inessentials.”
Bruce Lee