Summit keynote: Simple rules pack surprising punch

It’s a reflex for leaders in many businesses, and it drives Don Sull absolutely crazy. When a complex problem arises, leaders spring for a solution just as maddeningly complex, full of contingencies and if-thens.

The problem, he offered in his keynote at the Center for Operational Excellence’s Leading Through Excellence summit: “Just because a solution is complex does not mean it’s better (than a simple one).”

Sull, a researcher and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, kicked off the second day of COE’s fifth-annual summit with a crowd of more than 400. Detailing the surprising findings of Simple Rules, he offered a path forward on a critical challenge to business leaders in a wide variety of industries: How can critical processes be structured but still have “breathing room” for creativity and innovation?

The answer, culled from years of research, mostly at tech companies in Silicon Valley, is the concept of “simple rules,” a small, concise and appropriately specific set of guiding principles that can transform a hazy path forward into a sure thing. These rules, Sull said, can be helpful in situations ranging from resource allocation and knowing when to call it quits on a project to turning analysis into action (think Moneyball) and reigning in innovation.

Sull is careful to point out the many processes, by contrast, where less structure and simple rules aren’t the way to go: Surgery, high-volume manufacturing, and airplane-flying, to name just a few.

“There are a ton of processes activities where a high-structure approach is the right thing to do,” he said.

The problem, Sull said, is that so many companies apply the same structure and rigor to processes and decisions that would only benefit from a pivot to simplicity. And it’s up to us as leaders, he said, to make it happen.

“People default to complex solutions for a variety of reasons that I find intriguing and maddening,” Sull said. “As leaders, you have a choice.”

For a full look back at the summit, head to our photo retrospective.

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