Simplicity Is As Simplicity Does in Communication

Simplicity is as simplicity does in communication means that it is about what simplicity can accomplish in communication not simplicity because it looks good. I got interested in how simplicity relates to communication from Skip Prichard’s comment that ‘simplicity….is actually not a simple subject’ in his post ‘The Power of the Simple’ (http://www.skipprichard.com/the-power-of-the-simple/). Simplicity in this context is an example of how appearances can be deceiving. Just like for Forrest Gump in the movie of the same name when his mother tells him ‘stupid is as stupid does.’ She is telling Forest that it is what you do not what you look like that really matters.

This post explores three faces of simplicity. One face is simplicity as a process which can help produce an elegant solution to a real-world challenge. A second face is simplicity as the essence of what needs to be understood to make receiving an important message easier. A third face is simplicity as a core concept to increase the applicability of knowledge.

First, simplicity can help produce an elegant solution to a real-world challenge when viewed as a process. In a 2005 paper about simplicity and complexity in design, Dan Ward describes simplicity as a process with a graphic called The Simplicity Cycle (http://www.dau.mil/pubscats/pubscats/atl/2005_11_12/war_nd05.pd).

Simplicity Cycle SNIP

From ‘The Simplicity Cycle’ by Dan Ward

The main message behind the ‘Simplicity Cycle’ is that the positive correlation between complexity (adding more elements) and utility (increased understanding, a better product, a better design, and so on) in the beginning stages of a project (from point 1 to point 2) is not sustainable. You inevitably reach a point of critical mass at which added complexity decreases utility (point 3). It is at this point that simplicity leads to increased utility (point 4). Ward provides the example of Einstein’s E=mc2 equation as the type of elegant solution that can arise from applying this process for simplicity. Of Einstein’s equation Ward says the following: ‘There is tremendous complexity behind it, but the equation itself is at once profound and breathtakingly simple.’

Second, simplicity can help a targeted audience or person receive an important message when viewed as the essence of what needs to be understood. At the annual meeting for the Association of Talent Development this past May, Sharon Boller made a distinction between what you need to ‘know cold’ versus what can be looked up relative to workforce training (http://www.slideshare.net/SharonBoller/when-remembering-really-matters-devlearn-2014-presentation). Boller made this distinction because she said that humans are biologically wired for remembering to be hard and for forgetting to be easy. Boller also presented techniques that have been proven to improve retention of information. Therefore, the ‘essence’ of what needs to be understood from a workforce training program is what a worker needs to ‘know cold’ to improve their performance on the job. This is a small percentage of the overall content of a given workforce training program. The rest of the content can be looked up by the worker as needed. The trainer can focus on applying the retention techniques to this small subset of content which helps the learners receive what they really need to understand ‘on the job.’

Third, and finally, simplicity can increase the applicability of knowledge through the power of a core concept. In his book Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds points out that information is a commodity because of the Internet so what people really want from a presentation is what they can’t get from information: meaning (http://www.presentationzen.com/). Reynolds advocates for simplicity through identifying the core message for a presentation. On simplicity, Reynolds says the following (see page 79 of the Second Edition copyrighted 2012): ‘If everything is important, then nothing is important….Every idea can be reduced to its essential meaning if you work hard enough. For your presentation, what’s the key point? What’s the core? Why does (or should) it matter?’

The power of a core concept, meaning, is the ability to apply that core concept to other areas for new ideas and insights. New ideas and insights, in turn, are seeds for innovation which is implementing an idea to produce value. A note of caution: it is creative to be open to the possibility that applying a core concept from one area to another area can lead to useful, new insights and ideas but it is folly to assume that this will always be the case as a general rule.

For example, a core message from systems theory is that the most powerful way to change a system that will not revert back is to change the system’s function (see Chapter 1 in Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows, http://www.donellameadows.org/systems-thinking-resources/). An example of the application of this core message is an organization that was implementing a climate change program changed the function of a group of engineers charged with cost reduction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from operations. Not only has significant progress been made towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions from operations, but new and lasting ways to reduce operating costs were found and and continue to be implemented.

Another example is the core message from The Simplicity Cycle that you first need to add elements before you can get to a point where removing elements can lead to something valuable. This same core message is applied in the creative problem solving technique (http://www.cpsb.com/research/articles/creative-problem-solving/Celebrating-50-Years-of-Creative-Problem-Solving.html). In creative problem solving, you start on common ground with a well-constructed problem statement (point 1). Next you choose generation techniques to come up with many possible options to address the problem statement (point 2). Finally, you choose focusing techniques to process and narrow down the options to those most valuable to addressing the problem.

A third and final example is the core message that past success can be a good predictor of future success. This core message has been applied to two different methods for addressing challenges. One method is TRIZ (pronounced TREEZ) which provides tools (http://www.triz.co.uk/pwpcontrol.php?pwpID=167) based on prior successes gleaned from patent literature to help focus the approach to addressing a technical challenge. Another very different approach is the Appreciative Inquiry 4-D Process (http://positivechange.org/how-the-4-d-process-works/). Once an affirmative topic has been selected for a group or organization, the process starts with identifying past practices and past stories of success relative to the topic. These past successes form the common ground and basis from which to envision what is possible for the future. Finally, a design and action plan to achieve the desired future is put together.

In summary, the use of simplicity can accomplish powerful results in different contexts. There really is no simplicity without some sort of complexity. You can think of complexity as a pre-requisite for simplicity. In the case of the Simplicity Cycle, complexity is added until the inflection point where adding more complexity decreases the value of the application or project. It is at this inflection point where decreasing complexity can continue to add value to the application or project. In communicating to one or more people, reinforcing the essence of what needs to be understood, versus what can be looked up later, increases the chances that the message will be received and retained. Finally, the power of a core message is that is can be applied to other situations as a seed for new ideas and innovation.

If you would like to learn more about how simplicity can enhance collaboration and innovation in an organization or group, then please contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com). Also ask about our first-time client offer.

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