Wednesday, December 10, 2014

“What is simplicity?”

“The point is that you get into trouble when you ask a single question with a single box for an answer, in which that single question actually is many questions with quite different meanings, but with the same words. Asking, ‘What is simplicity?’ I think falls in that category. What is the state of science? And, interestingly, complexity is very highly evolved. We have a lot of interesting information about what complexity is. Simplicity, for reasons that are a little bit obscure, is almost not pursued, at least in the academic world.” [George Whitesides: Toward a science of simplicity, TED Talk, Apr 2010; he is an American chemist and professor of chemistry atHarvard University. As of December 2011he has the highest Hirsch index rating of all living chemists. The h-index is an index that attempts to measure both the productivity and citation impact of the published body of work of a scientist or scholar.]

“We academics -- I am an academic -- we love complexity. You can write papers about complexity, and the nice thing about complexity is it's fundamentally intractable in many ways, so you're not responsible for outcomes. Simplicity -- all of you really would like your Waring Blender in the morning to make whatever a Waring Blender does, but not explode or play Beethoven. You're not interested in the limits of these things. So what one is interested in has a lot to do with the rewards of the system. And there's a lot of rewards in thinking about complexity and emergence, not so much in thinking about simplicity.”

After 11 years in Eastern Europe preaching simplicity to my friends, I finally heard the magic word in a very profound way in our recent budget review from one of the business unit managers. “It is very simple, our role in the business unit is to create great products, and your role in the field is to get them to the hands of the consumer. It is the simplest way to explain the 4 Ps [product, pricing, placement, promotion] or the marketing mix.”

Of course, to get to that point, the enterprise had to toil and overcome several hurdles. For example, they had to unlearn what a poor country had taught them: to sell a packaged good it has to be for no more than 50 euro cents. In short, there is such a thing as the value chain. And the higher the value-addition the greater the geography it can cover; and given economies of scale it would generate healthy returns and attain a virtuous circle. [Unfortunately, in the case of PHL, given our inward-looking bias, geography to us has been limited to our borders thus the underdevelopment of the requisite building blocks of regional and global trade and competitiveness. And it all starts in the mind, informed by our assumptions, beliefs and values – that we have taken as gospel truth? But we are so polite – or is it compassionate? – to debate the issue and aren’t able to get to the bottom of the problem?]

And that is where critical and creative thinking must be employed given the 21st century demands of innovation. And the Design School in Stanford calls it “design thinking” – which is anchored in “empathizing” with people or the consumer in order to truly figure out their needs and problems.

Still, the marketing mix is only a subset of the broader ecosystem; there is also the “resource mix” and the “execution mix.” An enterprise beyond creating great products must employ resources efficiently and execute plans accordingly – in order to attain sustainable growth and contribute to a nation’s economic output and wellbeing.

“The characteristics, which I think are useful to think about for simple things: First, they are predictable. Their behavior is predictable. Now, one of the nice characteristics of simple things is you know what it's going to do, in general. So simplicity and predictability are characteristics of simple things. The second is, and this is a real world statement, they're cheap. If you have things that are cheap enough, people will find uses for them, even if they seem very primitive. So, for example, stones. You can build cathedrals out of stones, you just have to know what it does. You carve them in blocks and then you pile them on top of one another, and they support weight.” [ibid.]

“So there has to be function, the function has to be predictable and the cost has to be low. What that means is that you have to have a high performance or value for cost. And then I would propose as this last component that they serve, or have the potential to serve, as building blocks. That is, you can stack them. And stack can mean this way, or it can mean this way, or it can mean in some arbitrary n-dimensional space. But if you have something that has a function, and it's really cheap, people will find new ways of putting it together to make new things. Cheap, functional, reliable things unleash the creativity of people who then build stuff that you could not imagine.”

“Let me close with my two aphorisms. One of them is from Mr. Einstein, and he says, ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ And I think that's a very good way of thinking about the problem. If you take too much out of something that's simple, you lose function. You have to have low cost, but you also have to have a function. So you can't make it too simple.”

“And the second is a design issue, and it's not directly relevant, but it's a nice statement. This is by de Saint-Exupery. And he says, ‘You know you've achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.’ And that certainly is going in the right direction. So, what I think one can begin to do with this kind of cut at the word simplicity, which doesn't cover Brancusi, it doesn't answer the question of why Mondrian is better or worse or simpler or less simpler than Van Gogh, and certainly doesn't address the question of whether Mozart is simpler than Bach.”

“But it does make a point -- which is one which, in a sense, differentiates the real world of people who make things, and the world of people who think about things, which is, there is an intellectual merit to asking: How do we make things as simple as we can, as cheap as we can, as functional as we can and as freely interconnectable as we can? If we make that kind of simplicity in our technology and then give it to you guys, you can go off and do all kinds of fabulous things with it.”

Indeed design, beyond the challenge of simplicity, can be an expression of change as explained in the exhibits titled “Disobedient Objects” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London: “Many of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today were won by disobedience. Activist social movements have changed our world from the grassroots up, popularizing new ideas and values. The objects made as part of these movements have played a key role in those cultural and political changes . . . The objects on show were not made by commercial designers, but by people collectively taking design into their own hands to make a change in the world.”

Jony Ive, “The genius behind Apple’s greatest products [Leander Kahney, Portfolio/Penguin, 2013] . . . was a museum-goer . . .  he and his dad made many visits over the years to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, one of the world’s leading art and design museums.” And indeed Apple products have become synonymous to simplicity and change.

But obviously there are barriers to simplicity and change. For example, PHL institutions, not just those of higher education, are reflective of our hierarchical system and structure – e.g., government, the church and oligarchic economy. And by definition, hierarchies are bureaucratic and complex. Yet successful global companies with their mantra of simplicity can be leading edge science-wise and rapidly get their products to the hands of consumers around the world. Of course, there are products that may not have obvious societal benefits. But that’s precisely why design thinking must be founded on human empathy.

The bottom line: simplicity and contributing to a people’s wellbeing are not incompatible; while complexity may not even be meant to deliver outcomes – an ego trip being a good example?

The reference to Jony Ive of Apple is apropos to the topic of simplicity; and Apple is today the world’s largest enterprise, bigger in market value than some major economies. They are the benchmark I’ve used in training my Eastern European friends. And I will shortly be training our newest batch of brand managers. But this time I will be assisted by a 24-year old Bulgarian who graduated from the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London. I was so impressed by how she articulated the concept of a product we’re developing for the Western market – i.e., it was very coherent yet very simple and very brief. And the thoughts all came back to me as my wife and I, joined by two other couples, friends from the Philippines, were at the Victoria and Albert Museum [see above re Jony Ive and his dad] in London [just before the cruise we took. I am writing this while on Queen Mary 2 and reading the book on Jony Ive.]

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