Simplicity: Quite Simply the Greatest Challenge You Will Ever Face

By David Hassell

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

~Steve Jobs

The train of innovation continues to hurtle forward, never ceasing and always picking up speed. We now have the tools and ingenuity to create almost anything we can conceive. In turn, every mind-blowing new design inspires us to conceive in ways we never thought possible.

The more complex the world becomes, the more beguiling are the simple inventions. Just this month I have seen videos for an invisible bike helmet, and the first 3D sensor for mobile devices. Not to mention that I am ‘typing’ this post by simply speaking into my iPhone and watching as my words are magically converted into text.

It’s the little things

One of the early American “mountain movers” was an inventor by the name of Whitcomb Judson. He was awarded 30 different patents, mostly for his pneumatic steel railway system. You have never heard of it because it failed miserably, and was replaced by the widely popular electric street car. The many highly technical devices he designed and patented for the railway were just too impractical to be produced. Judson would have died in virtual anonymity had it not been for his invention of a much simpler piece of equipment, dubbed the clasp-locker. You probably know it by its modern name: the zipper.

The zipper’s simplicity makes it one of my favorite inventions. It is highly effective (most of the time) and used on countless products. Not to mention that delightful zzzip sound from where it derives its name. But while a zipper operates simply, it took a lot of time and thinking to conceive. On the surface it performs beautifully, disguising the invisible and complex technology that makes it function.

There’s always a better way

“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.”

– Steve Jobs

Few of us stop to consider how a zipper works. We simply pull it one way or the other and it opens and closes. In fact, we only become aware of the device and instantly curious about its zippy little secrets when it malfunctions. And so we press on to improve an imperfect design and ask, “How do we make this simpler, faster, or better?”

That question spawned the second iteration of 15Five. We launched version 2.0 several months ago and essentially started from scratch. We rebuilt using a far more complex technology that supports an elegant and seamless user interface. Faced with unique challenges at every step, simplicity was our mantra. That core value fed our persistent focus, our problem solving, and the creation of new systems for implementation and collaboration.

Challenge is the Mother of Invention

15Five began with a simple idea and a very lean team. But as more people began using the software, the simplicity of our product and our organization became harder to maintain. Our workforce grew and we soon needed systems to coordinate teams of people. The more successful we became, the more systems we needed to create.

Having standards in place can feel constricting and antithetical to cultivating a courageous team of unfettered creativity. We needed to establish simple rules and regulations that remained flexible, while keeping structure. This is a fine balance since too much flexibility without parameters creates either spinning wheels or paralysis.

We wanted to function smoothly without implementing complex hierarchies and team structures, so we created flexible rules and explained them to avoid the frustration and resentment that often results from bureaucracy. We built a trustworthy team and had conversations, not policies. We created a culture of freedom and accountability by recruiting only responsible, high performing talent. We continue to encourage freedom and flexibility as our organization grows in size and complexity.

The razor’s edge

I am reminded of Occam’s razor which states that all things being equal, the simpler explanation is the correct one. We like finished products that are simple in form and function, but we also appreciate how they are created. We develop new systems and methods to create our products and we constantly improve them. Systems and products co-evolve. Better systems create better products, which implore newer systems and even better products result.

As we become entrenched in the daily what and how of our product, it can be difficult to approach the familiar in a novel way. We can throw money at our problems (hire the best talent, license the most expensive software), but in the end the best recourse for solving problems is throwing ourselves at them. We dedicate our focus while maintaining a space where imagination can flourish. Pretty soon the answers seeks us out as well. It’s that simple.

This post was originally published on Tech Cocktail

How do you maintain simplicity as you grow? Leave us a comment below.

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