The 1988 movie, Bull Durham, summarized baseball in the following eighteen words: "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Simple. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Steve Jobs, a name synonymous with innovation, had a passion for innovation and for simplicity. As the headline of Apple’s first marketing brochure proclaimed in 1977, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication," echoing da Vinci's message. When I worked for GE years ago the mantra was "Speed, Simplicity, and Self-confidence."
We are seeing a theme here.
Imagine you are in 5th grade and, as part of a school project, you are given a large box of items and asked to build something. Pipe cleaners, pieces of wood, dowels, nails, glue, tape, straws, and fabric are just some of the materials that are contained in this box. There are probably about 30 items in all. In addition, you are encouraged to construct something on your own and, ideally, without parental involvement.
You get to work. Maybe you take out all of the materials and just start building. Maybe you sketch a plan. Maybe, if you are like my friend, Bob, you do something completely different. If you are like Bob you toss aside almost all of the items and keep only three that you have decided to use – a piece of wood, a nail, and a dowel. As the rest of us worked at building sailboats, campsites, and model farms, Bob traveled a path that was so brilliant that it resulted in him being questioned at length – almost interrogated – by teachers and school administrators. Bob, completely on his own, built a sundial.
Bob’s sundial was so contrarian to what everyone else had done that teachers were actually puzzled. “Where did you come up with this idea?” “Who helped you?” “What did you do with the rest of the materials?” While the rest of us stood proudly by our creations – I am not sure any of us followed the rule around parental involvement - Bob, being cornered by towering adults, kept his cool. “I saw this in Popular Mechanics. My Dad gets that at home.” The interrogation stopped and the teachers convened about ten feet away from Bob to discuss the matter. Looking back at the situation it now seems similar to when there is a controversial call during a football game and the referees decide to do a video tape review, leaving us all waiting with anticipation as to if the call will stand or be overturned. After about two minutes, it happened. I can still see it as clear as day. Just like the football official who starts his sentence with “after reviewing the play…” one teacher made an announcement. “We are excited to award Bob first prize for his project.” Gasp! Being a close friend of Bob’s this was exciting and I was happy for him. However, for the rest of the class there was a collective “what just happened?” reaction that was a mix of confusion, anger, and sadness. The beautiful boats cut at precision angles. The cows made from pipe cleaners. The planes with propellers that spun. All of these lost to a sundial made with only three items, one of which was cracked in the building process.
What Bob had done is exactly the message we are trying to get across. He looked at something and, rather than go with complexity, he went for simplicity. He did not get constrained by traditional thinking, and, possibly most importantly, he lived in a household that fostered a culture of curiosity and positive reactions to ideas (I know this to be fact since I spent many days at his home building forts and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). The culture in which he was raised encouraged this type of thinking – almost risk taking – when faced with problems. To Bob, throwing out almost all of the items and taking about ten minutes to build his project (I believe mine took days) was not risky nor was it unconventional. It was normal. It was innovative. It was EASY.