Book Notes: “Simple Rules”

Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World
By Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt
Mariner Books, 2015

Many people assume that complex situations call for complex solutions. The authors of Simple Rules argue that you can’t fight complexity with complexity. Instead, defining (and abiding by) simple rules can help us act skillfully in complex, fast-moving situations.

The authors offer many examples, but a memorable one is treating injured soldiers in a battlefield. In the past, injured soldiers were helped on a first come, first served basis. However, some need treatment more urgently than others. Prioritizing under pressure calls for triage based on a simple set of memorable rules.

The authors define simple rules as “shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information.” Such shortcuts allow us to act skillfully in a bottom-up manner when dealing with dynamic situations where we lack information. (I.e., always.)

Simple rules work because they allow us to

  1. Act consistently while maintaining flexibility
  2. Make better decisions
  3. Synchronize efforts with our colleagues, much like bees do

The authors cite research that suggests simple rules allow us to address complex situations better than complicated solutions. This requires rules that are abstract enough to be adaptive, but concrete enough to be actionable. The easiest to follow are those tailored to the needs of specific situations.

The book discusses two types of rules. The first are those that help us make better decisions, “by structuring choices and centering on what to do (and not to do).” They include:

  1. Boundary rules, which help us decide between two alternatives
  2. Prioritizing rules, which help us rank choices
  3. Stopping rules, which help us reverse decisions

The second type of rules are those that help us do things better. They include:

  1. How-to rules, which suggest steps needed to successfully carry out a task
  2. Coordination rules, which allow multiple actors to work together towards shared goals
  3. Timing rules, which help us identify the right moment to act

Where do we get rules from? The book covers three possible sources:

  • Natural selection
  • Personal experience
  • The experience of others

(Personal experience is constrained by the time and attention available during our limited lifetimes. Because of this, I prefer a combination of the first and last of these sources, e.g. by reading old books that are still relevant.)

By crafting simple rules for organizations and teams, managers can help team members decide and act more strategically. Strategy and execution “cannot be separated” — and simple rules are an excellent way of coordinating strategic action since they’re easy to remember and implement.

Many of the book’s insights and examples come from the authors’ interactions with young founders and managers of businesses from around the world. Their situations are relatable to anyone leading a team or organization. The authors distill their insights into a template for creating simple strategic rules:

  1. Determine what will influence the aspects needing change (i.e., “what will move the needles”)
  2. Identify one key aspect (the “bottleneck”) that needs the most work
  3. Create rules to deal with that aspect

By figuring out what will make the most difference, the team can start improving the things that matter most. (I.e., acting more strategically.) This isn’t just applicable to business: Simple Rules also includes a chapter on how to craft and apply simple rules to personal challenges such as diet management and finding a romantic partner.

The book concludes with chapters on how to improve rules over time and on situations that call for breaking rules. I found the discussion of iterating simple rules to be especially insightful, since the first set is unlikely to be perfect. Refining rules based on feedback helps make them more useful over time.

Much writing about strategy comes across as somewhat abstract. Simple Rules bridges the gap between strategic thinking and day-to-day execution. The book inspired me to reflect on my personal “needles” and “bottlenecks” and to define simple rules to help me improve. I expect to do the same with clients. If you’re concerned with acting more strategically “in real life,” Simple Rules is worth your attention.

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