Sunday, June 7, 2009

If it's simple, something must be wrong

I met my friend’s brother couple of months ago at a dinner in his place. He had just qualified to become a Neurosurgeon. He was excitedly looking forward to his life and career as a specialist. He was sharing his thoughts with us and the topic naturally veered towards great surgeons. He spoke in awe of Dr.B.Ramamuthi, whom he (and rest of the medical fraternity) considered a pioneer in Neurosurgery in India.

He mentioned that great surgeons (and doctors) were not only highly knowledgeable in their subject but also very creative in their own way. I asked him why he considered them creative. He said that they could look at a highly complex problem and with a potent mix of knowledge and intuition arrive at a solution that was at once simple and brilliant. In fact he likened them to ‘great artists’.

This was very refreshing to me as I had never looked at the medical profession in this way. It was also music to my ears. Words like intuition, creative and simple are seldom mentioned in the same breath these days. Therefore, it is no surprise that these magical words of this budding Neurosurgeon echo in my mind after all this time. There is also another reason.

Time and again I have been told that “if it’s simple, something must be wrong.”

I am not kidding when I say that these are the words of many of my clients in my stints in advertising and in the internet space. You might also think that it is an experience confined to me and in my none-too-illustrious career. It is not so. People I know and who are highly regarded in their field– architects, software developers, web designers, journalists, teachers – and who have achieved considerable success share similar experiences.

It seems that an apparent complex problem cannot have a solution that is simple even if it is the best one. One of the reasons for this behaviour is that people are increasingly taking themselves too seriously. Made worse by the information overload we suffer these days.

There is another important reason – the culture of the organisation. Probably decision makers within the organisation do not encourage intuitiveness and an approach that is ‘simple’. They might be even of the opinion that they are not getting their money’s worth from the team. The manager who brought it to their notice is castrated, oops castigated. Once bitten, the manager discards any trace of intuitive sense that may be present. The operating philosophy becomes ‘match complexity with complexity’, over analyze and paralyze.

The problem with seeking complexity is that you will get it. But your customers and audience will not. This is understandable. Unlike Apple, people are not waiting with bated breath for your products or communication. It is no wonder that many product launches and campaigns fail. Read this hilarious and brilliant piece by Ad Contrarian on the Tropicana fiasco and you will know what I am saying.

To arrive at a solution that is at once simple and brilliant requires lot of hard work. A smart manager knows that the imaginative and technical skill of the team (R&D, Design, Engineering, and Agency) is stretched to the limits in pursuit of a creative solution that is simple. Steve Jobs does just that. And if one can also do the same in a life threatening situation like Neurosurgery, why not you? Probably, it is ‘career threatening’.

I have become a big fan of this wonderful company 37 Signals, a software products company, which boldly embraces this philosophy of ‘keeping it simple’. They have captured it beautifully in their book, Getting Real, available for purchase or if you are a cheapskate like me read it free online. The message in the book is applicable to everyone, more so one involved in ideas and creativity. However, don’t blame me if you find the thoughts expressed in it as being a bit too ‘simple’ for your liking.

It was their blog that led me to Sam Maloof. He is 93 years old and one of the most admired contemporary furniture designer from USA. His simple philosophy to design is captured in this quote “My goal is to make furniture that people can be comfortable living with. If you’re not preoccupied with making an impact with your designs, chances are something that looks good today will look good tomorrow…”

And this piece by Chip and Dan Heath (‘Made to Stick’) fame who believe that a simple strategy can resolve decision paralysis.

Need I say more? However, if you still demand complexity I have a simple (there we go again) solution.

Have an affair with your married neighbour. And get caught.

(Image courtesy: Lougan Manzke)

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  1. The Tropicana example really nails it. I remember often being "accused " of simplistic solutions. My initial reaction used to be - Thanks. Till I realized that I was politely being told to do some "visible" work

    "This & That" is nice. Do you manually choose the clips or do you bung in some tags and it does it automatically?

  2. Like all your posts, a breathe of fresh air and no faff. This post is a much needed advice to people, especially in advertising and marketing. We spend days building a complex rationale for a simple solution...maybe we can have a complicated workshop to drive home this simple message.

    superbly written subbu!

  3. Thanks for those kind words.

    @Ramesh: I manually choose the parts of the post I want to clip. It is a breeze actually and I thought that it is an interesting way to 'bookmark' and share.

    @Priya: Complicated workshop for a simple message...well said. I guess there will be many 'experts' in the market to deliver the complicated part and we know who they are....and many takers too :)

  4. Nice article, Subbu, esp the end :)

  5. Thanks Apu for the visit and the kind words.