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5 October 2013

Simplicity

Tag(s): Technology, Business, Marketing
This week I was invited to speak at the CIO Connect annual conference in London. The conference is intended for Chief Information Officers and about 150 of them came. The theme of the conference was “The Game Changing CIO” and I was asked to speak on “Agent of change: Technology disruption and the future of business”. I based my speech largely on observations I had made in a blog earlier this year (see my blog “The future of technology disruption in business “ 19th January, 2013) which itself was based on a white paper published by the Economist Intelligence Unit where I am a member of its Opinion Leaders’ Panel.

For me the overwhelming message of the conference was the importance of simplicity. This theme was largely established by the key note speaker, Ken Segall, who had been the Creative Director at TBWA/Chiat Day, now part of Omnicom, working on the Apple account. He helped write the famous “Think Different” advertising campaign for Apple and also claims to have come up with the ‘i’ first attached to the iMac, but then later the tag for most of Apple’s products.  Ken is now a writer and has written much longer works than ‘i’ but that single letter is probably the most important thing he has ever written. His book “Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success[i] covers the idea in depth but in an hour and a half he took us through “The Power of Simple” with various examples but with the best drawn from his years of working with Steve Jobs.

Jobs was obsessed with simplicity. He strove for it in everything, not just the products but in the design of the organisation, the supply chain, the engineering, the range of products and so on. Everything. He believed that simplicity never fails. But being simple isn’t simple which is why so many companies don’t get it. For Jobs Simplicity just means Brains plus Common Sense, but then, as we know, common sense is not common. For Apple simplicity was the ultimate sophistication. There were a few key principles:
  • Think minimal. Jobs had no committees in Apple. He ran it as a start-up which became the biggest start-up on the planet.
  • Minimise the product line. While Dell has 42 models of laptops and HP has 49 Apple has just six.
  • Minimise the words. The iPod was launched with the slogan “A thousand songs in your pocket” while rival MP3 players were introduced with long lists of features. The quotation “One should use common words to explain uncommon things” is apparently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, but whoever said it it was a guiding precept for Ken in his copywriting for Apple.
  • Simplicity –the ultimate efficiency. Apple just did more in less time for less money.
  • And simplicity was a long term strategy. Sir Jony Ive, The British born head of design for Apple, said
“Apple’s goal isn’t to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products. We trust that as a consequence of that we’ll make some money. But we’re really clear what our goals are.”

Ken’s other examples included such great moments in simplicity as McDonald's advertising any size of McCafé Premium Roast coffee for only $1 and the US Postal Service printing First Class Forever on its stamps so that stamps did not become obsolete and have to be topped up with other stamps of different value. The Royal Mail adopted a similar strategy and while it does not stop them putting the prices up it is much simpler for the sender. By contrast his examples of complexity included a Sony TV remote control with its numerous buttons. We had dinner together that evening and I told him that in my time at Sony I introduced as many as 250 ‘new’ products each year, most of which had vanishingly small improvements on the previous year’s models. The ranges were complicated because the process was complicated. Product Planners and Engineers were under instruction to find kaizen, continuous improvements, but these improvements, if such they were, were seldom game changing.

Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 the year before I left Sony. At that time Sony was still top of the heap and Apple was in desperate trouble. By the time of Steve Jobs’ death in 2011 Apple had become the most valuable publicly quoted corporation in the world. (see my blog In Memoriam Steve Jobs 8th October, 2011)

I shared the platform at the conference with my friend, Bill Payne, General Manager of Customer Experience and Industries within IBM’s Global Process Services Business. Bill advocates asking your children to find the disconnects in your company’s public faces. He cited one leading travel and hotel firm whose site took six pages from finding the hotel you wanted to check out. On the way you had already been asked to fill in your home address but when it asked you to complete your credit card details it then asked for an address. It meant the billing address but 37% of customers got lost at that point, many of them filling in the address of their credit card provider.

Amazon is the master of this and has disrupted whole channels of conventional bricks and mortars retailers with its ‘one click’ approach. Google is in the process of disrupting the advertising market assisted by a very simple design, especially when compared with all the others it’s left behind in its wake. The relevant page on Wikipedia lists 69 search engines that have been launched since 1993 of which only 41 are still active but many of those have been acquired, rebranded or in some way altered. Some of the fallers in this Grand National, or should it be Grand Global, include AltaVista, Magellan, Inktomi, and Boogami.

Another speaker suggested a possible reason for the complexity. Dr Steve Peters is a surgeon turned psychiatrist who has specialised in sports psychology and is the consultant psychologist who has been working with the extraordinarily successful British cycling team as well as Premier League football and twelve other Olympic disciplines. Sir Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton CBE all attribute their success to him. His focus is on how the mind can enable us to reach optimum performance in all walks of life. In his book “The Chimp Paradox” [ii] he explains his method to help us understand and control our ‘inner chimp’ – the irrational, impulsive, seemingly impossible part of our mind that often holds us back.  He shows that competition is as much in the mind as it is in the field or on the track – or in the office.

In simple terms – if you want a fuller and no doubt more accurate explanation buy the book- while most organs in the body develop as a single coherent unit the brain consists of six separate parts which have an uneasy coexistence and often try to override each other. We evolved to survive in the jungle and have become the top ape because we can do things which the other apes can’t. But in the process we sometimes allow that part of the brain which was good at spotting danger and acting quickly to evade it to ride roughshod over that part of the brain which coolly examines an issue in a logical and rational way.

Our host for the conference was Justin Webb, the BBC journalist and Today programme presenter. He was impressed by the theme of simplicity but mused that journalists sometimes oversimplify at the cost of meaning. To illustrate his idea he retold a John Major story that I first heard Sir John tell when he opened NXT’s new research centre in Huntingdon, his constituency town. He had just become Prime Minister and visited Moscow to meet Boris Yeltsin. At that time Russia was suffering from the second deepest depression in recorded history. As they made their way through the palatial corridors of the Kremlin heading for lunch Major engaged Yeltsin in conversation by asking him how things were in Russia.

“Good.” said Yeltsin.

Major was somewhat taken aback by this reply. He was conscious of all the advisers and diplomats watching him so he summoned up the courage to probe a little further. “Well,” he asked, “Please could you give me the longer version of that answer?”

“Not good” said Yeltsin.


[i] Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success” Ken Segall.  Portfolio/Penguin 2012
[ii] The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management programme for confidence, success and happiness Dr Steve Peters.  Ebury Publishing 2011
 
Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved
 



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