As consumers, we appreciate simplicity. From the IBM mantra, “good design is good business” to Apple’s insistence on usability, we are willing to spend more to be saved from confusion and frustration. In business, streamlining and making changes that reduce training costs are both valued. Nonetheless, many talented people are fascinated by complexity and drawn toward solutions that require focus and thought – and this can be a problem.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as curious about complicated systems as the next person. (Actually, I’m probably more so.) Sometimes, not being put off by challenges that require many levels of analysis and a willingness to consider solutions with many working parts can lead to answers to intractable problems. But recognition that complexity can be too enchanting and simplicity too quickly dismissed is important to find the best answers. A better understanding of astronomy might provide solutions to navigation, but, ultimately, it couldn’t compete with the development of the chronometer.
How do we know we need simpler solutions?
Too many fixes. Whatever a device or a theory begins to need add-ons and cautions to operate properly, it’s a pretty good indication that there is a solution at a higher level. It is possible to do the mathematics that would allow the earth to remain the center of the universe and still be able to predict the locations of the other planets, but the heliocentric approach makes life easier.
Confusion. When explanations lead people in the wrong directions or baffle them, you can almost be certain that a piece is missing. Usually, this means that the starting point is not ideal.
The naïve answer is rejected. It’s true that a view that the sun rises and sets makes an astronomer cringe. However, for day-to-day activity it’s more effective for most people than focusing on the turning of the Earth. Often, breakthroughs come from childlike views and analogies. In fact, some innovation teams purposely will ask a non expert about a problem. Accepting the answer, tentatively, can lead to new thinking. Einstein’s gedanken experiments, such as what happens when you travel the speed of light, provide insights without the burden of complex mathematics.
The cost is too high. Some complexity comes as people with very specific needs begin to dominate design decisions. As Clayton Christensen found in his research on disruptive innovation, the “good enough” solution can often lead to approaches that are less expensive and, over time, can be improved. Frugal innovation is a way that “good enough” solutions can find their way into more people’s lives and create social change.
Unintended consequences. While even the best solutions can lead to the unexpected, it’s all too common that a “solution” to a problem will have unfortunate results. Think of the new understanding of how imprecise medications can cause increasing problems as medication after medication is prescribed to solve a growing list of side effects. Or consider how some solutions merely put off the ultimate challenge—one original plan for cleaning up rivers was to build pipelines to bring waste directly into the ocean. Ultimately, the root problems are not being addressed. We do have good techniques of root cause analysis for exposing higher-level problems, but their use often suffers from limited perspectives and self-interest.
As stated above, incorporating naïve perspectives into innovation processes and taking advantage of root cause analysis can be helpful in moving toward simpler solutions, but perhaps the best way to find better solutions is to look for examples in nature. The Wright brothers spent a lot of time studying the flight of birds and their wind tunnel experiments created a better appreciation of how the shapes of wings affect lift. Just recently, NASA sent ants into orbit to see how their foraging changed in weightlessness. One explicit hope is that the approach to search for ants might lead to new ways for robots to cooperate and conduct searches.
Setting impossible targets can also lead to simpler solutions. The size of the Sony Walkman was dictated not by engineering considerations but by a command from the top that the device fit within specific dimensions. Steve Jobs famously required his engineers to limit the number of buttons on the iPhone.
Knowledge of advances elsewhere can lead to simplicity. The steam engine was originally made to pump water out of wells and it came to spark the industrial revolution. The printing press applied designs from wine presses.
A question I’ve found useful in exploring technologies within eye toward simplification is, what’s missing? This is an hour just to appreciating the negative space in a painting. It engages the intuition, and often leads to more questions and better discussions.
|Escrito por Peter Andrews|
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