MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Simple rules to govern complex things

By MIT Sloan Lecturer Steve Spear

A general premise of MIT Sloan's Creating High Velocity Organizations is that if you have simple rules to guide your action--in even the most complex situations--you have huge advantages over complex analogies, anecdotes, and best practices. They have a surprisingly narrow range of application.  

As for the class itself, we focused on managing many people working towards common purpose, in often complex and dynamic situations, trying to understand how some deliver far more value to market, more quickly and easily than others.  

Our "theory" is that performance altitude is a proxy for accumulated knowledge about what to do and how to do it, and accumulated knowledge is the byproduct of active learning dynamics.  These are rooted in the basic principles of:

  • Managing systems to see problems when and where they occur
  • Solving problems with rigor to generate new knowledge
  • Spreading/sharing local discoveries to have systemic effect, and
  • Leading to see, solve, share become organizational "habits"

To create some open mindedness to the idea that having just a few simple rules to practice is a huge advantage, we looked at other fields that gain power from their simplicity.  One was mechanics, in which a simple law like F=MA provides a huge latitude of confident action.  

The Experience Music Project Gehry

Another example is the design and build of structures that have huge variety of form and function, a possibility totally unavailable to those working off of best practice analogy instead of basic principle analysis.

The same is true of space flight. Understanding the effect of forces on the motion of objects, and understanding that the force of gravity is proportional to mass and inversely proportional to distance squared, allowed the European Space Agency to launch a satellite, have it transit for 12 years, and land like a perfect basketball jump shot on a comet circling the sun hundreds of thousands of miles away. Watch the video: ROSETTA'S TWELVE-YEAR JOURNEY IN SPACE.

Simple rules to govern complex things.  That's where we get power we would otherwise lack.

Steve Spear teaches in the MIT Sloan Executive Education program, Creating High Velocity Organizations, May 28-29. He is also the author of  The High-Velocity Edge: How Market Leaders Leverage Operational Excellence to Beat the Competition.

Photo credit: Darwin Bell / Foter / CC BY-NC

This entry was posted in on Sun May 03, 2015 by


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