Books for Brains

Simple Rules – How To Thrive In A Complex World

by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt

Sull - Simple Rules - hresWe struggle to manage complexity every day. We follow intricate diets, sign 47-page cell phone contracts, face too many emails at work, and wade through thickets of regulation at tax time. Do complex problems need complex solutions? In SIMPLE RULES: How to Thrive in a Complex World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 21, 2015), authors Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt argue that complexity is not destiny.

Drawing on more than a decade of research, Sull and Eisenhardt reveal that by developing a few simple yet effective rules, you can achieve even the most complicated personal and professional objectives. Whether you’re working to get your start-up off the ground, be a better manager or investor, or trying to get more sleep, get in shape, or get a date, SIMPLE RULES can help you.

Effective simple rules share four common traits:

  • Limit rules to just a handful. Capping the number of rules makes them easy to remember and keeps a focus on what matters most. Think about Zipcar’s revolutionary car-sharing model. They gave customers six simple rules: report damage, keep it clean, no smoking, fill’er up, return on time, pets in carriers.
  • Tailor your rules to the person or organization using them. College athletes and middle-aged dieters may both use simple rules to decide what to eat, but their rules will be very different.
  • The rules should apply to a well-defined activity or decision. How to prioritize patients for care in an emergency room, for example, vs. “how to improve healthcare.”
  • Provide clear guidance without being overly prescriptive. For example, Michael Pollan’s “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly plants” doesn’t specify whether you should have blueberries or cantaloupe or kale for lunch! Simple rules leave room to exercise creativity and pursue unanticipated opportunities.

Tina Fey, bee colonies, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), improvements in survival rates of wounded soldiers, and many more are all success stories thanks to using simple rules – and they’re some of the dozens of diverse examples provided throughout the book. Tina Fey codified her experience working at Saturday Night Live into rules for producing 30 Rock (rule five: never tell a crazy person he’s crazy). Bee colonies use simple rules to find a new nest. In selecting which innovations to back, DARPA has just two rules: a project must further the quest for fundamental scientific understanding, and second, it must have a practical use. Kickstarter relies on a few rules to decide which projects can use the crowd-funding platform including “projects must create something to share with others,” and “projects must be honest and clearly presented.”

Herein are examples of managers and employees who used simple rules to do their work more effectively without relying on thick manuals of bureaucratic rules. We see ways to help solve some of the most daunting social challenges. We understand how to apply them to our own lives every day. “Fighting complexity is an ongoing battle that can wear us down,” write the authors of SIMPLE RULES, “Simple rules can be a powerful weapon in this fight.”

Don Sull is a global expert on strategy and execution in turbulent markets. He is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a former London Business School professor.

Kathy Eisenhardt is the S.W.Ascherman Professor of Strategy at Stanford’s School of Engineering and co-director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.

A Conversation with Donald Sull and Kathy Eisenhardt, authors of SIMPLE RULES

How did you get the idea to write Simple Rules?

Kathy: Most of us have way too much email, own too many devices, and face overly complicated health plans and tax laws. Our kids and jobs keep us swamped with too much to do and too many choices.

But, it struck me that some people, especially successful people, crystallize complexity into a few rules of thumb or what we call “simple rules.” For example, legendary investor Warren Buffet counsels us to never invest in something we don’t understand. Renowned child psychologist Debbie Glasser advises parents to give every child a home chore.

My work with Don Sull led to the realization that simple rules work for businesses too. Some of the most successful ones like Pixar and Google have simple rules that guide activities like when to release a movie and which person to hire. For example, my colleague and Lean Startup guru, Steve Blank, advises new entrepreneurs to “get out of the building” and talk to at least 100 potential customers when starting a company. Wikipedia replaced traditional encyclopedias by initially relying on only three rules. Even governments can use simple rules. In fact, governments with simpler tax codes have better citizen compliance. So I thought that if we studied how people and organizations use (or don’t use) simple rules – from gardening and the arts to sports and investing – I might solve the mystery of how people cope with relentless complexity.

How have you used simple rules in your personal life?

Don: I use simple rules all time in my professional and personal life. I’ve used rules to double the profits of a business in the midst of the Great Recession and to lose 15 pounds. In fact I first used simple rules decades before we wrote this book. During college, I worked as a bouncer at a biker bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my second trip to the emergency room, I realized that relying on sheer brawn was a losing strategy for a middleweight boxer. So I came up with a set of simple rules, including “don’t let

trouble in the door” and “double up on doormen for ska and heavy metal.” The most effective rule was “keep the bikers on my side,” so I would let their friends in for free and keep an eye on their bikes. Whenever trouble was brewing, I’d ask a couple of the bikers to come with me, approach the knuckleheads who were getting ready to rumble, and explain they could either leave now or take it up with my friends Man Mountain and Shotgun. It worked every time.

What surprised you researching and writing this book?

Don: First, how widespread simple rules are. Bees use them to find a nest, Tina Fey to produce a comedy show, burglars to choose a house to rob, and the fifteenth century Jesuits to explore different missions. Second, despite this bewildering diversity all simple rules fall into six basic categories. For example, Pixar uses rules to decide when to release a movie and female crickets to decide when to stop searching for the best mate and settle. These are very different rules, but both are examples of what we call timing rules. Finally, there’s the importance of simple rules in creative and innovative activities. Most people think that creativity requires you to “think outside the box.” We found, however, that trying to innovate without any constraints overwhelms creativity. Instead, the trick is to innovate within loose boundaries. Simple rules provide the perfect balance of consistency and flexibility for creative tasks, which explains why Monet used them for painting, the White Stripes for recording in the studio, and Elmore Leonard when writing nearly 50 novels.

Why do simple rules work?

Kathy: The most obvious reason is that simple rules often help people, groups, and even organizations make better decisions. Simple rules are cognitive short-cuts or heuristics that save time and effort. They focus attention and simplify the way that we think – they’re rules of thumb.
Yet there’s a twist. Simple rules are more than just weak approximations that we use when we are short on time and information. Rather, simple rules help us to pay attention to what matters most in a choice, and can proxy for a wealth of implicit information. This means that there are many situations in which simple rules produce better decisions than complicated analysis or lots of data.

Are simple rules effective for changing personal behavior?

Don: Yes, there is a growing body of research showing that people are more likely to remember and act on simple rules than more complex alternatives. One study looked at how entrepreneurs learned accounting. The researchers found that entrepreneurs who learned simple rules of bookkeeping implemented the changes, stuck with them, and improved their financial results. Entrepreneurs who learned accounting as a complex set of principles did no better than the control group that received no training. In many cases, voluminous scientific research can be reduced to a few robust rules to guide behavior. For instance, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh reduced decades of sleep research into 4 rules that reduced insomnia more effectively than the most powerful sleeping pills without any side effects.

Are there are situations in which simple rules just don’t work?

Kathy: Sure, simple rules are not always the right tool. One situation is when people have to engage in a routine task with lots of steps. Many steps make it easy to forget one. In these situations, a check list works best. In fact, we have lots of admiration for Atul Gawande’s masterful book, The Checklist Manifesto. Situations like aircraft take-off, prep for hospital surgery, and getting organized for Thanksgiving dinner are all times when checklists work well. I would not be without my checklist to pack for business trips. I just don’t want the hassle of forgetting my toothpaste or ear plugs.

At the same time, checklists and simple rules can work together. Take health care. Checklists are smart medicine for doctors getting ready to operate – to avoid calamities like cutting open the wrong leg or giving too much anesthesia. But simple rules can also help doctors diagnose medical problems like depression and acute chest pain quickly and at low cost.

If simple rules are so effective, why do complicated solutions remain so common?

Don: While most of us hate complexity, its important to remember some people benefit from it. The complexity of the US tax code allows special interest groups and lobbyists to hide tax breaks that benefit only a few. Lobbyists who write volumes of regulations routinely join the private sector to help guide companies through the labyrinth they helped build. One of the most enduring obstacles to simplicity is what we call “the myth of requisite complexity”—the mistaken belief that complex problems demand complicated solutions. But this is often not the case. One study compared how the judicial systems of over 100 countries and found the more regulations imposed on courts and judges, the worse the results as judged by citizens. The regulations were well-intentioned, but the result was that more rules lead to less justice.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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