The power of simplicity

The power of simplicity

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.” This was Albert Einstein’s first rule of work. It is a quote that I have used countless times in my coaching of leaders.   In fact, after fifteen years of working with individuals on their self-expression, I have come to believe that there is a general human tendency to make messages overly complex.  When I hear people telling their stories, making their speeches or giving their formal presentations in a corporate setting, I am usually left with the impression that the whole thing is overly cluttered.  We need desperately to learn to simplify.

As such, one of the most interesting articles I have come across recently is about the concept of “breakthrough simplicity”. Here is a link to the article, which appeared in Fast Company. One reason that this piece caught my attention is the one I mentioned above: I have long advocated simplicity with my clients and students, applying the concept both to leadership and to branding. A second reason for my interest is related to my some of my thinking on creativity and innovation.

The link between creativity and simplicity: I remember once, many years ago, hearing Steve Jobs comment that creativity is often more about connecting things than inventing things. And, when I think about the remarkable success of Apple in recent years, it seems to me that much of it comes from simplifying the user experience. Rather than breaking new ground with revolutionary gadgets, they have focused on making things that already exist more elegant, more intuitive, and simply easier to use.

In fact, when legendary Apple designer Jony Ive was asked to comment on his team’s redesign of the iPhone operating system (iOS7, introduced this year), his core message was about simplifying: “There is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation–it’s about bringing order to complexity.”

Leaders provide vision by simplifying their messages: One characteristic of successful leaders is their ability to impart a simple, clear vision for the future. When I observe political campaigns, for example, I watch closely the stories that the candidates tell to groups of voters. While I recognize that politics is quite complex, and while I certainly do not consider myself an expert analyst, I am often struck by a simple truth: the candidate who is able to simplify and clarify his messages is usually the one who wins.  For example, in the 2008 US presidential election, Barack Obama stayed focused on a few themes and told his personal stories of identity in direct and concise fashion. John McCain did not.

Obama simplified his stories in order to make them clear and accessible to a wider audience.  The best brands do this as well.

Simplicity and branding:  Think of some of the most valuable brands in the world at the peak of their success, and consider the simplicity of their stories.   Nokia was about “connecting people”, Apple had “computers for the rest of us”, IKEA was “making people’s lives easier”, Nike was encouraging us to “just do it” and Coca-Cola was bringing us “the real thing”.

All of these brand messages are easy to follow, pure and graceful.  We follow them because they speak to us in a primal way.  They make us feel clean and wholesome, as part of a winning team.

One of my favorite tales of branding simplicity is the “Intel Inside” story.  Most people who use a computer have no idea how a microprocessor works, what its precise role is, or what would make one brand superior to another.  Yet, in the 1990s, Intel’s “Intel Inside” advertising campaign made it and its Pentium processor household names.  So today, many consumers do know that they want a computer with an Intel inside.  The company has managed to create a simple and elegant brand story around a product that nobody sees, and that only engineers and technologists truly understand.


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