Simple Rules – D. Sull and K. Eisenhardt (2015)

Simplification is not necessarily a form of stupidity – it can be a form of intelligence. Even of brilliance.

Simple rules are, simply put, rules of thumb. And simple rules are applicable to almost every area. They do three things very well:

  • Confer flexibility to pursue new opportunities while maintaining some consistency
  • Can produce better decisions
  • Allow members of a community to synchronize their activities with one another on the fly. Think bee colonies.

It is also my experience that one needs, in order to be effective, to bring back a strategy, or any message for that matter, to a coherent set of core rules or principles.
According to the authors these kinds of rules have four traits that make then attractive: They are limited to a handful and tailored to the person or organization using them. Furthermore they apply to a well-defined activity or decision (to prevent platitudes as ‘do your best’) and lastly, they provide clear guidance while conferring the latitude to exercise direction.

And that is what makes them powerful weapons against complexity (a term that the authors seem to use as a synonym of ‘very difficult’, which in my view clouds the full meaning of the word, but it serves the book’s purpose). Lots of people and organizations are trying to solve complex issues with complex solutions; they will find the result underwhelming. For the simple reason that no one, and no organization, can come up with solutions that cover all possible outcomes. We simply cannot rule out coincidence, are notoriously bad at predicting and will never have all the data and facts needed. Without a shadow of a doubt this will lead to disappointment and will in the end even decrease the amount of people following those very rules, as they will choose to neglect them for being too difficult. What’s more, we are no robots; we need room to think for ourselves.

A good example of simple rules comes from the highly ‘complex’ world of food and dieting. Trying to help people to decide on how and what to eat in order to stay/ get healthy, the famous culinary author Michael Pollan issued the following rules: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Everyone understands those rules of thumb, they are easy to remember and there’s no need to read the books Pollan wrote prior to crafting those rules.

So, it’s all about good decision-making. But how do you decide on how to make those rules? Again, no real breakthrough insights here, but good to have some of my gut feeling validated by MIT and Stanford professors. Rules of thumb evolve from own experiences, others (e.g. books), high-quality science or negotiations.
I believe that if we make an effort to come up with good simple rules, we will be able to close the gap between strategic intent and day-to-day action a lot more effectively.