Simple Rules: A new book by strategy expert Donald Sull

Simple Rules

The world is highly complex, and we struggle to manage the complexity of it every day. Most of us accept this complexity as unavoidable, attempting to manage the complex systems we face with complicated solutions. But meeting complexity with complexity can create more confusion than it resolves. So how can people better manage the complexity inherent in the modern world?

Donald Sull, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan, swears by simple rules, whether in his personal life or in helping companies he consults with make better decisions. His latest book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, co-authored with Stanford University's Kathleen Eisenhardt, aims to help more people put these simple rules in practice.

A decade ago, in the course of studying why certain high-tech companies thrived during the internet boom, the authors discovered something surprising: To shape their high-level strategies, companies like Intel and Cisco relied not on complicated frameworks but on simple--and quite specific--rules of thumb. The simple rules these companies had mapped out in order to manage complex processes helped them make on-the-spot decisions, adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, and bridge the gap between strategy and execution. All this even though they were in extraordinarily complex, challenging, and fast-moving industries.

Sull and Esienhardt draw on their abundant research to provide a framework for developing and refining effective rules. They find insights in unexpected places, from how Tina Fey codified her Saturday Night Live experiences into rules for producing 30 Rock ("never tell a crazy person he's crazy") to burglars' rules for selecting targets ("avoid houses with a car parked outside"). Whether you're struggling with information overload, pursuing opportunities with limited resources, or just trying to change your bad habits, Simple Rules provides a powerful antidote to complexity.

What are simple rules?

Simple rules are guidelines that apply to a specific activity or decision. They're intended to offer a limited amount of guidance--keeping the number of rules to a handful forces you to focus on what matters most. For instance, the simple rules of not keeping tempting snacks at home and not eating starches with dinner on weekdays can actually go a longer way toward helping someone lose weight than a complicated diet that is hard to follow and to maintain.

Simple rules like the example above are also tailored to the situations of the particular people who will use them, and not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Those food rules do not apply across the board to every person trying to lose weight. This is the same for corporations trying to overcome key challenges. While those challenges may be the same as that of a competitor, there are many circumstantial differences that require a different set of rules in order to be successful.

The rules are most effective when they are applied to critical activities or decisions that are hurdles that stand between a goal and its accomplishment.  When people attempt to cover multiple activities or decisions with the same principles, the result is vagueness and clichés. The rules should give concrete guidance without being overly prescriptive, allowing individuals and organizations to pursue a wide range of possibilities. They are flexible, while lending consistency, coherence, and structure to decision making. 

Why do simple rules work?

Simply put, simple rules help people make quicker, better decisions. By using simple rules, people can function without constantly having to stop and rethink every aspect of a decision every time they make it.

In his book, Sull points to Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychology professor at the Max Planck Institute, whose studies pit sophisticated decision models against simple rules. One such study looked at how police can identify where serial criminals live. A simple rule--take the midpoint of the two most distant crime scenes--got police closer to the criminal than more sophisticated approaches. Other research found that simple rules match or beat more complicated models in forecasting which patients with chest pain are actually suffering from a heart attack. Why is this so? In many situations, adding more variables leads decision makers to give too much weight to peripheral considerations. Simple rules eliminate a great deal of noise. 

Simple rules also:

  • Help to avoid the paralysis that often strikes when people confront too many alternatives
  • Not only trigger people to act but keep them from abandoning a decision once they have made it; their simplicity increases the odds that people will remember them, act on them, and stick with them over time
  • Promote collective behavior by imposing a minimal level of coordination and leaving ample room for choice and individual interest

Sull is a global expert on strategy and execution, and according to him, effective, executable strategies don't live in thick binders--that's where they go to die. Simple rules are the beating heart of strategy. When carefully crafted and applied, simple rules can guide the activities that matter.
Get the book

Donald Sull is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan and formerly a professor at Harvard and the London Business School. The Economist and Fortune have listed him among the next generation of management gurus. This October, he is leading the new executive education program, Closing the Gap Between Strategy and Execution, a unique course that includes a state-of-the-art survey for participants, the data from which will be analyzed to pinpoint concrete opportunities to improve their organization's execution capacity.

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