Ten Rules of Simplicity

By Michael Knight

Thursday 21 January 2010

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Do you feel like you are having trouble breathing at times from drowning in a world that seems to becoming increasingly more complex?

Systems that appear to be catering for the needs of many, yet still stifling people in the process with burdensome complexity?

Laws and Legislation that always keep on the increase with the devil in the detail trapping you at almost every turn?

Those advanced qualifications you seem to need to get even the most simplest of jobs?

Do you ever feel like you want to strip it all back to your flesh, and start a fresh?

A real concerted effort by you at simplifying your life starting today, maybe the only way to reach true freedom.

The below Ten Rules of Simplicity by Edward De Bono may help you crystalise this notion and lead you on a path to simplify your life, for the better.

Rule 1. You need to put a very high value on simplicity. This seems simple enough. In fact very few people put a high value on simplicity. They put some value on simplicity but usually this is a 'second-order' value. An operation must be effective or an operation must save money. If that operation can also be simple that 'would be nice' - but only so long as the simplicity did not interfere with the other values. When things are highly complicated we do often wish for simplicity. But when things are not complicated we rarely strive to make something as simple as possible. Simplicity is not often treated as a prime objective. If you do not put a very high value on simplicity, then simplicity is unlikely to just happen.

Rule 2. You must be determined to seek simplicity. You must be motivated and determined to make an active effort to make things more simple. It is not enough just to appreciate simplicity if it is there. You need to make things simple in an active way. Simplicity is not a peripheral luxury that is 'added on' to other things. The drive or motivation to simplify must come from your own attitude. This attitude should also be encouraged by the surrounding organization or the person who has set the design brief. It is necessary to invest time, thinking energy, design effort and money in trying to make things more simple. People quite like simplicity if it does not cost anything but are usually unwilling to invest resources in making something more simple.

Rule 3. You need to understand the matter very well. You need to be very clear about what you are trying to do. You need to be very clear about values. You need to be very clear about the many considerations that have to be taken into account. If you are seeking to understand a situation or process you need to know that process very well. If you do not, then the result of your efforts will be "simplistic' rather than simple. True simplicity comes from thorough understanding. Simplicity before understanding is worthless. It is simplicity after understanding that has a value.

Rule 4. You need to design alternatives and possibilities. The emphasis is on 'design'. Analysis plays an important part in simplification but in the end you have to 'design' a way forward. That design process needs creativity and lateral thinking. It is not a matter of designing the 'one right way'. It is more a matter of designing alternatives and possibilities, and then selecting one of them. The first idea that comes to mind is very unlikely to be the best. That is why it is so important to go on thinking and to produce some further possibilities.

Rule 5. You need to challenge and discard existing elements. Everything needs to be challenged. Everything needs to justify its continued existence. Systems and operations have a natural tendency to grow ever more complicated. Things which were needed at one time may be no longer needed. Where something cannot be justified then 'shed' it. If you wish to retain something for the sake of tradition let that be a conscious decision.

Rule 6. You need to be prepared to start over again. It is much easier, and tempting to try, to modify an existing operation or structure in order to make it simpler. Sometimes, however, you need to be able to start again from the beginning. Be clear about what you are trying to do and then set about designing a way to do it ignoring the existing system entirely. This is more difficult, more expensive and less likely to be acceptable. So you will need to show the benefits of the suggested new system and explain why modification would never achieve the same benefits. This restructuring can apply to a whole operation or to part of it.

Rule 7. You need to use concepts. Concepts are the way the human mind simplifies the world around. If you do not use concepts, then you are working with detail. It is impossible to move sideways from detail to detail. You need to go back to a concept and then find another way forward out of that concept. Concepts provide the first stage of thinking in setting the general direction and purpose. Once you have this then you can find alternative ways of delivering that concept with specific ideas and concrete detail. Remember that it is the precise purpose of concepts to be general, vague and blurry. That is how they work.

Rule 8. You may need to break things down into smaller units. The organization of a smaller unit is obviously simpler than the organization of a large unit. The smaller units are themselves organized to serve the larger purpose. This process involves decentralization and delegation. In order to understand something you may need to break it down into smaller parts - through analysis or through convenience. Complex systems work best when there are sub-systems, each of which has a simpler organization which is integrated into the whole (like the tiny cells in the human body).

Rule 9. You need to be prepared to trade off other values for simplicity. A system that seeks to be totally comprehensive may be very complex. You may need to trade off that comprehensiveness for simplicity. Then you design a parallel system to deal with the exceptional cases. So long as errors remain unacceptable, you may need to trade off perfection for practical simplicity. Simplicity is a real value and you may need to give up some other values in order to obtain simplicity. This sort of trade-off requires a clear sense of values and priorities. It is usually not possible to have everything, so there has to be a choice between different values. It is important to be deliberate and conscious of the choices that are being made.

Rule 10. You need to know for whose sake the simplicity is being designed. Is the simplicity being designed for the users (customers) of a system or for the operators (owners) of the system? Is the simplicity for ease of manufacture or for ease of maintenance? Is the simplicity for ease of operation or for cost-saving? A shift of complexity may mean that a system is made very much easier for the customer but much more complicated for the operator. It more often happens the other way round. Who is supposed to benefit from this simplification? If everyone is not going to benefit, who is going to benefit?

The ten rules are an extract from his book 'Simplicity'.

Enjoy Michael

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