How Smart Leaders Defeat Complexity

Learn from an Apple insider how to simplify your business.

Picture Apple’s product range. Platinum MacBooks. Wafer-thin iPhones. Whatever the product, it’s sleek, attractive, and instantly recognizable as Apple. Above all, it looks beautifully simply.

In fact, if you look at Apple’s product design and retail stores, as well as how management engages with its teams, you’ll see that simplicity is at the heart of Apple’s operations. Why? Because they understand that simplicity is the most powerful tool for a modern business. Consumers prefer it. Employees love it. And with it, management can take a company to astonishing heights.

But simplicity is hard. It takes work to distill a company’s brand, to cut through layers of departmental complexity, or to streamline a product range. The good news is that this article will provide the tools you need to simplify and will give you insights from some of the sharpest people in business.

Simplicity is not about being simple – it’s about giving the impression of being simple.

We can’t help but make things complex. The more we discover, invent, and grow as a species, the more complicated our lives become. From labyrinthine bureaucracies to the maddening instructions that come with appliances, we complicate things.

The irony is that we love simplicity. We prefer easy-to-use products. We gravitate toward people who express themselves clearly. We love companies that have a distinctive, simple brand. So why do we over complicate things?

Well, mainly because simplicity is hard to attain.

The key message here is: Simplicity is not about being simple – it’s about giving the impression of being simple.

Take an Apple MacBook. It's a beautifully simple bit of technology, but a lot of complexity went into it. Ask most MacBook owners to explain the advanced technology powering their computers and they’d be stumped. Or consider Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Ice cream surely can’t be that complicated, right? Well, what appears to be a straightforward, delicious confection – with big chunks of cookie dough, candy, and swirls – is the result of a complex process.

In fact, when the company first started, classic ice cream machinery could only handle small ingredients. But to get their signature ice cream flavors, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield invented a way to add those big chunks and hefty swirls. Then, to make things even more complicated, they had to figure out how to mass-produce it – large chunks and all.

Simplicity, then, isn’t simple. But companies benefit by giving the impression of simplicity, which is precisely what Foolproof does. Foolproof is a fast-growing digital-design agency based in the UK. They design websites for major tech firms, airlines, banks, and media companies. And their ability to make the user experience as simple as possible is what sets them apart.

To do this, they strive for what they call “flow,” a concept attributed to the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In a state of flow, the user moves seamlessly through a website and isn’t aware of his actions because everything is so intuitive.

This means that things like booking flights, which can be frustrating, become uniquely simple, pleasant experiences. And though the web designers at Foolproof have worked extremely hard to achieve this simplicity, the user won’t know a thing about it.

Simplicity, then – it’s something that looks easy on the outside but is extremely tricky on the inside.

All great companies have a central mission that clearly defines them.

Anything you could possibly want is just one click away. That’s what Amazon told the world when it brought e-commerce to the masses. And with that line – one click away – Amazon found its company mission.

Not all companies have a clear mission. Ask a group of people what they think Hewlett Packard or Dell exemplify and you’ll likely hear a hundred different things. Great companies stand out, in part, because they have simple, strong philosophies.

So, what exactly is a company mission – and how can you go about developing one?

Here’s the key message: All great companies have a central mission that clearly defines them.

A company mission is a simple, powerful rationale behind everything it does. By setting this out clearly, a company can strip back anything superfluous and get to the heart of what it’s about.

Few company missions are as simple and coherent as Apple’s. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, after an eleven-year exile, the company was falling into decline. Within a short time, Jobs had brought the company’s mojo back.

How did he do this? Even before taking back control, he formulated a new company mission in a presentation he gave alongside then-CEO Gil Amelia. On a slide behind him were the words: “Mission: provide relevant, compelling solutions that customers can only get from Apple.”

And that’s Apple’s mission to this day. Without Jobs’s clarifying vision, which gave the company its central purpose, Apple would be just another PC manufacturer. Instead, it’s a revolutionary consumer electronics company admired across the world.

Another important turning point for Apple came when the company created the Apple Store. This was an opportunity for Apple to demonstrate its mission in a public space – from the way its employees acted to the way its stores looked.

The man recruited to develop the Apple Store, Ron Johnson, built on Jobs’s central mission. He created a specific mantra for the retail stores: Enrich Lives. Just as Apple’s purpose was to design products that centered on users’ needs, the Apple Stores’ purpose was to enrich the lives of everyone who came in. That’s why customers could expect enthusiastic service in-store, and talented employees have always flourished at the Genius Bar help desks.

That’s the power of a well-defined and simple company mission.

A strong company culture helps unify and simplify.

Imagine you’re being interviewed for a new job. Your potential boss shows you around the premises. She gestures toward a wall display where you see photographs of employees at various fun and goofy team-building events. She laughs and says, “That’s just how we do things around here.”

What she’s getting at is the company’s culture. It’s what makes a business feel the way it does. And it goes further than just team-building exercises – it defines everything, from how employees treat each other to the way emails are written.

A strong company culture is a crucial component of any truly successful business.

The key message here is: A strong company culture helps unify and simplify.

For a start, company culture quickly lets employees know how things are at the company. Take Whole Foods, the American multinational health-food chain. Their culture instills a real sense of purpose in their employees. And that purpose is to celebrate the benefits of whole foods, with a lowercase w, as healthy for individuals, communities, and the earth. People who work at Whole Foods tend to be passionate about this purpose – and it rubs off.

Alternatively, a strong culture can tell employees that they’re not the right fit for a company. For instance, in 2012, Apple hired John Browett as their new senior vice president of retail. He was a former CEO of Dixons, the British retail chain. Browett didn’t “get” Apple’s whole ethos from the start. Rather than “enriching lives,” Browett looked to maximize short-term profits – he fired staff, cut hours, and reduced promotions. He simply didn’t click with the company culture. He was out the door within nine months.

As well as setting the standard for employees, a company’s culture can also unify a disparate workforce. The culture at Electronic Arts, the large US-based video-game designer, has done exactly that. The company needed to unite groups that didn’t naturally gravitate toward each other, like video game artists and coders. Electronic Arts’ solution has been to foster a culture where everyone feels part of the same team, moving toward the same goals.

A strong culture, then, can be a great simplifying tool: it helps establish a clear, consistent set of principles, while unifying a company under one banner.

A company’s CEO is crucial to achieving simplicity.

Think of Steve Jobs in his signature attire: black turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers. Something just as characteristic about Jobs was his hands-on leadership. He was always strolling around Apple’s headquarters, checking in on different departments and giving his feedback.

It’s important to note that he wasn’t micromanaging. Yes, he was eager to share his ideas, but he was always willingly swayed by someone else's passionate opinion. By getting into the nitty-gritty, he was able to spark debate and push teams further while hearing ideas directly from the experts on the ground.

In fact, Jobs’s brand of leadership was key to the way Apple worked – and to its simplification.

This is the key message: A company’s CEO is crucial to achieving simplicity.

Steve Jobs’s approach enabled Apple to cut out layers of bureaucracy when it came to decision-making. Rather than an idea moving upward through different levels of approval, Jobs would just drop in on the source department. This gave him an opportunity for open collaboration. He could either approve the idea, challenge staff to deliver better against the company’s mission, or hear staff members out. He would be interested in the tiniest detail, from the curves of a new laptop to the feel of a button.

This hands-on, informal leadership style meant that the company’s vision didn’t get watered down. It was easier for Apple to maintain its beautifully simple mission because Steve Jobs was close to all the action.

Kip Tindell, co-founder and former CEO of The Container Store, is another advocate of this kind of leadership. From the start, he built The Container Store – an American retailer that specializes in storage products – in a way that prioritized open collaboration. He has encouraged informal, candid dialogue among all areas of the company, rather than a highly regimented decision-making process.

Because of this openness, employees at The Container Store know that their thoughts are valued. Tindell has built an atmosphere where people feel comfortable expressing themselves and sharing new ideas with him.

And guess what? By cutting out the endless layers of approval while allowing people to speak their minds to the CEO, the business has been able to capitalize on being effective and innovative.

Hiring the right team is the key to a strong and simplified company.

As we’ve learned, a successful company needs to be united around a clear and concise company mission. For that to happen, everyone needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet – that is, everyone needs to fit in with the company’s mindset. That’s why hiring the right team is so crucial to a successful company.

The key message here is: Hiring the right team is the key to a strong and simplified company.

It might come as a surprise, but the best companies often use unconventional methods for recruiting. That’s because the tried-and-tested CV-sifting process doesn’t always work.

Take the example of StubHub, the American ticket exchange and resale company. In the beginning, it had a generic hiring process. First was a filtering stage, after which recruiters would refer the top three candidates to StubHub cofounder Jeff Fluhr. From there, he would choose his favorite.

Today, Fluhr believes that’s precisely the wrong approach. He’s not simply looking for a perfect CV with all the right experience. Instead, he’s looking for someone who demonstrates curiosity, creativity, and work ethic while also being a good “cultural fit.” These are qualities that can’t be found solely by sifting CVs. That’s why entrepreneurs like Jeff Fluhr take a more holistic approach, assessing each new candidate as a whole person.

Kip Tindell, also believes in a different way of hiring. Like Jeff Fluhr, he doesn’t place all the emphasis on a good CV. In fact, he believes that there are two key attributes that might not be found in a CV at all. These are judgement and integrity, which he values more than traditional qualities, like intelligence and technical ability.

So, to ensure it gets the right people for the job, The Container Store interviews candidate’s ad. Often, candidates will have to undergo seven or eight interviews!

Another unconventional hiring tactic at The Container Store is to turn to existing employees for help with recruitment. Rather than going through a traditional HR department, the company asks employees to look out for suitable hires. So, if staff members have smart, passionate friends, meet someone interesting on a night out, or even have a distant relative who’s a good fit, they’re encouraged to refer those people to The Container Store.

However, the process is done, what matters most is getting the right people on board.

A strong, coherent brand is key to successful simplicity.

We instinctively understand what a company’s “brand” is. It’s the total of what we feel about that company. This is created by the product or service the company sells, its marketing campaigns, and what people we trust tell us about the company.

A strong brand is the most valuable commodity a company can have. It wins over new customers, making them brand loyalists. We all have our favorite brands, whether that’s Apple, Nike, or Cartier. And what unites all these leading companies is the simplicity of their brands: we “get” them quickly. We know what they stand for.

The key message here is: A strong, coherent brand is key to successful simplicity.

Homing in on a simple, recognizable brand identity, then, is important for success. Steve Jobs understood this as well as anyone. He was very much against complicating or watering down Apple’s brand identity.

For instance, when critics suggested that Apple’s high-tech phone business would stagnate without a low-cost option, Jobs scoffed at the idea. He saw Apple as a high-end brand that appealed to those who believed that beautiful, innovative products were worth the price. He wasn’t willing to dilute the brand by offering a cheap phone.

Another example of a powerful, simple brand is Kofola, the Czech carbonated drink company. A rival to Coca Cola and Pepsi with roots in the Communist era, Kofola struggled to compete with these Western brands when the country’s government fell in 1989.

But then its new owner, Kostas Samaras, decided to re-brand the Kofola drink entirely around the idea of nostalgia – namely, nostalgia for the good old days, spent drinking Kofola with family behind the Iron Curtain. This simple, neat re-branding meant newfound success for the soft drink.

Another part of maintaining a recognizable brand is making sure that it appears the same wherever the company has a presence. So, rather than adapting itself to appeal to local tastes and preferences, a strong brand should appear consistent worldwide.

Take the great automobile companies, for example. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Tokyo, Paris, or London – a Ferrari is the same luxury car everywhere. This logic can be extended to all kinds of products and services.

There’s a consistent thread running through all truly great companies. All have a simple, compelling brand that shines hard and bright as a diamond. And from this simplicity follows worldwide recognition, and with this recognition, exponential growth.

Simplicity can lead to real love and admiration for a company.

When he was alive, Steve Jobs talked about creating technology that people “can fall in love with.” He wanted to build an emotional attachment with Apple customers. To do this, he knew he would need to put simplicity front and center.

After all, we’re attracted to simplicity over complexity, which is why simplicity can help customers come to love a brand. The company that offers ease and convenience will gain supporters. These supporters will then become devoted to the brand.

Just look at how loyal Apple users are: they’ll purchase one Apple laptop after another and find it very hard to break that habit.

Here’s the key message: Simplicity can lead to real love and admiration for a company.

Uber is a great example of a company that has achieved fierce customer attachment. By providing a simple, convenient alternative to taxis in over three hundred cities, it has quickly gained a global fan-base. Of course, with every successful business come competitors claiming to offer cheaper, more efficient alternatives. Uber’s ease of use, however, as well as its drivers’ related positive experiences, mean that most customers remain faithful. Uber has created brand loyalty.

Even businesses that are unlikely to inspire “love” can deepen their connections with their customers. This extends to companies like television providers and banks that supply unglamorous services.

Take those TV providers. DirecTV Latin America, as the name suggests, provides television content in Latin America. CEO Bruce Churchill acknowledges that his industry is unlikely to inspire love. After all, many people don’t really love their cable provider. Instead, he aims to boost the number of customers who speak positively about the company, otherwise known as “net promoters.” Their opposite, “net detractors,” are those who speak ill of the company. By providing simple, effective service, this CEO is betting on more likes than dislikes.

The Bank of Melbourne is in a similar position – it’s hard to “love” a bank. But chief executive Scott Turner believes there are ways to build meaningful connections with customers, like providing support when starting a business, which generates a kind of emotional attachment. After all, a bank can set you on the path to saving for a house or a happy retirement. Why can’t a bank, then, inspire something a little bit like, well, love?

Many great business leaders use intuition.

Sometimes, you just know. Whatever other people might say, you know that something is going to work, or fail hard. That’s the power of intuition.

You might think that listening to your sixth sense in the business world is a bad idea – especially when everything there appears to be based on calculations. But you’d be wrong. Great business leaders, from Steve Jobs to Rupert Murdoch, have often gone with their intuition.

The key message here is: Many great business leaders use intuition.

Listening to your heart in business is important. For example, if Rupert Murdoch had listened to what financial analysts had told him, he wouldn’t have secured the rights to NFL broadcasts for Fox Sports.

At the time, Fox had never broadcast live sports. They had agreed to pay what was considered an enormous sum of money for the rights: $1.6 billion for a four-year deal. Many people in finance and the media called Murdoch crazy, telling him he’d never make that money back.

But Murdoch ignored them and followed his gut feeling. Of course, the rest is history: Fox Sports’ NFL coverage has been a triumph. That $1.6 billion looks like a steal today.

But going with your intuition as a company leader doesn’t mean ignoring data and hard facts. It just means being able to fill in the gaps between that data.

Take StubHub cofounder Jeff Fluhr, whom we’ve already met. He’s worked in web-based businesses since he became an entrepreneur. He has website visitor analytics that allow him to study data at length, and to see how users respond to different marketing strategies. But rather than relying entirely on the analytics, he checks in with his intuition. In fact, he tests out his hunches in his marketing strategies, and then looks at the data to see how consumers have responded to his tweaks and adjustments.

If you don’t have a Steve Jobs-like sense for business, then solid financial analysis and metrics can be great tools for improving your understanding. But to form world-changing business concepts, you’ll need to use your intuition, your deepest gut feeling about whether a new idea or product can work.

It’s a key factor in simplifying: your first instinct about a radical new product idea can be worth more than reams of financial analysis. As Apple’s Ron Johnson says, “If you want to differentiate, or move to the future, you have to rely on your intuition.”

Final summary

The key message in this article:

People instinctively prefer simplicity over complexity. Real simplicity, however, takes work. A company’s leadership can help drive simplicity by adopting a hands-on, intuitive approach. Also, a strong brand helps unify and simplify a business, no matter how disparate its parts seem. Finally, simplicity can inspire love and loyalty toward a company.

Actionable advice:

Simplify by cutting out 24/7 news when you’re working on something.

Do you scroll through the news every time you wake up, then find yourself anxious and depressed at the state of the world? Well, stop! You can’t personally solve all the world’s problems, and you’d be much more useful to yourself and others by focusing on the thing you’re good at.

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