Book Review: Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World

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I’ve been a fan of simple rules for years. Sometimes we called them “simple rules” and sometimes we called them “guidelines.” Sometimes they were “rules of thumb” and at other times they were “heuristics.” But I know how powerful and useful they can be. And, several years ago, I read Kathleen Eisenhardt’s book Competing on The Edge, which I thought was remarkably insightful and helpful.

Put those two things together and you can guess that I was excited about reading Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Kathleen Eisenhardt and Donald Sull. I found a lot to like, but I was also disappointed. This is a good book that could have been a great book.

Here’s the authors’ definition of simple rules.

“Simple rules are shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information. The rules aren’t universal – they’re tailored to the particular situation and the person using them.”

That’s a good definition, and the first part of the book covers the basics of simple rules. After the introduction, there’s a chapter on why simple rules work and when you use them.

You want to use simple rules for repetitive judgement calls. They should be tailored to a specific activity, especially when you must make a decision on the fly. They should be usable by a specific group of people. There are two other specific things about using simple rules that you should know.

Simple rules are guidelines, not recipes. They don’t tell you what to do. Instead, they tell you how to decide what to do quickly. Simple rules are also the most powerful when they’re applied to important things. You can certainly use them for less important things, but importance and power go hand in hand.

We live in a world where things seem to become more complex by the day. The temptation is to meet complexity with complexity. That’s what legislators try to do when they crank out laws that run to thousands of pages to try to deal with a complex marketplace or a complex regulatory challenge. Those thousand-page laws generate thousands of regulations. Even with all that effort and applied brainpower, I can’t think of a single situation where it’s worked.

Simple rules give us a way to fight complexity with simplicity. That’s one of the big takeaways from this book.

The chapter on Making Better Decisions introduces us to three kinds of rules. There are boundary rules that tell us where to do things and where not to do them. Prioritizing rules help us decide what to do first. And stopping rules help us know or decide when it’s time to quit and move on.

Up to this point, Simple Rules is solid, helpful, and lean. There’s a lot of value. That changes when we move into the chapter on Doing Things Better. There, we’re introduced to two more kinds of rules: coordination rules and timing rules. I’m sure they can be helpful, but I never got the point. I could have skipped this chapter.

The chapter on Where Simple Rules Come From is interesting, but not necessary. You can pick up some common-sense tips, like the fact that people are more likely to follow rules they help develop, but you might be able to skip this chapter entirely, too.

I expected the chapter on strategy and simple rules to be really helpful. Several writers, such as Erika Andersen, have approached strategy with just this idea in mind. If the people on the front line don’t have simple rules to follow, they’re not likely to do what you want, especially under pressure. Alas, this is where the book starts to wander off into the weeds. We’re told “When it comes to deciding where to apply simple rules, the most obvious activity is not always the right answer.” That’s certainly true, but it would have been better if the authors had given us clear and full advice on how to decide what is the right answer.

The authors talk a lot about bottlenecks. But their definitions aren’t very helpful and their examples sometimes make things worse. Not only that, in my experience at least, bottlenecks are only one of three things you want to look at if you want to make an organization more effective.

I think of a bottleneck as a place where a process slows down. When you fix the bottlenecks in a process, and you speed the process up. The authors cover bottlenecks, but they ignore two other important things where simple rules can help.

Leverage points are activities that have an outrageously large effect compared to the amount of input. They’re the 20 percent of the things you do that give you 80 percent of the results. Making performance on these things more efficient will have an outsized impact on organizational performance.

Every industry or company has Key Success Factors, the things you must do if you want the organization to succeed. Simple rules can help you perform better on your Key Success Factors.

There are also interesting and helpful things in the book that don’t move the book forward. Two examples are the interesting stories about Roald Amundsen and about Money Ball. There are lessons here, but I’m not sure how they relate to Simple Rules.

Bottom Line

You’ll get good value from this book if all you read is the first few chapters. You can read the rest and draw what lessons you will, enjoy the stories that you enjoy, and think of them as a bonus.

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