Discover more from Sustainable Returns
Simple is a Strategy
I've read dozens of biographies on business and political leaders. In almost every one of them, the subject says something like, "Once you realize every decision comes down to 1 key point, things get easier.”
As a young reader, this felt like BS. As an experienced (ish) reader, it feels like the only thing that matters.
Thanks for reading Kevin Stevens! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
Bob Iger in Ride of Lifetime, Steve Schwarzman in What It Takes, and Sam Zell in Am I Being Too Subtle - I vividly remember each of them pointing to their ability to simplify as the key to their success.
Jay taught me to use simplicity as a strategy. He always said that if there were twelve steps in a deal, the whole thing depended on just one of them. The others would either work themselves out or were less important. He had a laser focus on risk. I was creating structures and terms that had never been done before. I went to Jay and took him step-by-step through this incredibly complicated transaction. And damn it if he didn’t just look at me and say, “But, Sam, isn’t the real key to this whole thing just to rent the office space?” And sure enough, that’s what the whole transaction was predicated on. Jay’s level of intellectual rigor really appealed to me. - Sam Zell, Am I Being Too Subtle
Simplicity is a proxy for understanding, a common dominator for leading, and a framework for living. Simplicity is a paradox. To be great at it, we must understand the complex. Simplicity isn't a substitute for lack of detail, but rather capturing all of the details as concisely as possible.
If the world has a direction, it trends toward complexity. As a result, simplicity stands out as our attention spans shrink.
But, our inclination is to do the opposite. We're pressured to say more in a world full of noise and inflated language. "More" often equals the addition of complexity to boost our self-worth and prove the depth of our knowledge.
Instead, our goal should be to boost our audience’s understanding and add to their knowledge.
Richard Feynman was a Noble Prize-winning physicist famous for his work in quantum dynamics. His broadest impact, however, might be defined by his creation of a learning technique whereby imaging a small child as the target audience is part of the process.
Anyone can make a subject complicated but only someone who understands can make it simple.
His reasoning was clear, anyone can make a subject complicated, but only someone who understands can make it simple.
The Dunning-Kruger effect represents the danger of simplicity. If we simplify too early, we fall victim to believing we understand more than we think. We don't know what we don't know.
To take an example from my career, Cleantech 1.0 provides us with an example. Knowledgeable investors applied principles from similar disciplines without understanding the complexities of markets dominated by the prices of commodities and built to resist change.
For those who don't know the result, investors lost billions and are only now returning to the space. We can over-simplify and miss the details that matter.
We can apply the same principles of simplicity outside of business. My framework for a holistic life includes family, health, career, finances, and friends. Each day I check in on a red, yellow, green scale - that’s simple. Executing and balancing those is complex.
Simplicity is one of my favorite frameworks, and I could go on forever. But I’ll take my own advice and just keep it simple.