less is more

How To Make Simple Rules To Reduce Complexity

After 22 years as a professional (internal employee, external consultant, everything in between), I have a developed a theory: LESS IS MORE.

So you can imagine my joy when I came across Goffee and Jones’s 6th key attribute in Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization.

If you missed them, here they are:

  1. Let people be themselves.
  2. Practice radical honesty.
  3. Magnify people’s strengths.
  4. Stand for authenticity (more than shareholder value).
  5. Make work meaningful.

Whether talking about an organization (IKEA) or a TV show (Friends), I believe it nicely affirms my philosophy.

Instead of trying to sell you on all six, I’d like to build a case for why #6 is the most important…

First, what does/doesn’t stick with my learners (if people come away from one of my workshops with 2-3 new ideas, I’m happy).  

Second, the licenses, certificates and qualifications I’ve done and what does/doesn’t stick with me.  

Third, society’s clear preference for simplicity over complexity (e.g. wikiHow, for Dummies books, apps vs. software).

And if those three don’t convince you, think about your own experience and preferences:

  • Which apps do you favor and why?
  • How do you feel when watching a sport and you’re unclear on the rules?
  • What do you think when HR introduces a new performance measurement tool?

I rest my case.

If you still think you favor complexity over simplicity, please consider your collaborators and reports – I’m pretty sure they do not.

How To Make Simple Rules

So how can you reduce complexity and promote simplicity around you?

First of all, make clear and simple rules. If things aren’t clear, simplicity is out of reach.

From Stanford Graduate School of Business, here’s Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt on the WHY & HOW:

To make your own simple rules, here are 3 questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s the objective? What am I/are we really trying to achieve here?
  • Where’s the bottleneck? What’s preventing me/us from achieving the objective?
  • What rules/guidelines have worked/not worked in the past (mine your own data here)?

If you think the status quo is OK, here are 3 reasons why simplifying things pays off:

  • You can make faster decisions because you only need to consider a few key factors.
  • Complicated formulas and too much data cause you to overfit the past. Therefore, simple formulas and less data = better predictor of the future.
  • People actually do it (easier to keep in mind 3, rather than 10 things).


Beyond personal and organizational effectiveness, the answer to “the value of simple rules?” is simple –

We have enough complexity in our lives already. Don’t go looking to increase it.

I want an app that simplifies my life, not complicates it. I want a performance measurement tool that can be understood in a few bullet points, not a 30-page handbook.

If the rules around you don’t work, change them. If you don’t like the rules, change them. And when you’re in a position to make or co-create the rules, keep them simple (from board game to board room!).

By the way, whenever possible, co-create the rules with your collaborators (peers/direct reports). After all, no one can complain about the rules if they took part in their creation.

Thanks for reading!


P.S. For my FREE ADVICE on how to make simple rules in your team or group, drop me a note and we’ll set up a time to chat.

  • Do you ever think that as work becomes busier and busier — or, at least, as we allow ourselves to believe that’s what is happening — that the desire for simplicity in rules/processes will increase?

    • One would hope, yes. But, the need for distraction seems to beget the desire for complexity, sadly. Thx for your question, Ted!