People often view complex as synonymous with brilliant. Only a genius could invent something with a huge number of moving parts. Such thinking misses the point. The real challenge comes to simplify. To reduce complexity by focusing on what is important.
What is wrong with complexity? Firstly, if a product is too complicated often no one knows what need it actually solves. Secondly, complex tends to mean expensive. Multiple moving parts require production, assembly and create a nightmare for operations. Thirdly, complex often means fragile. More moving parts equals more to go wrong. As a middle-aged man I’m acutely aware of this. My childhood teddy is in great shape — it is only a cover with some stuffing. My complex human body, admittedly much more useful than my teddy’s torso, has numerous muscles and bones that haven’t done quite so well over time.
Simplifying isn’t a sign of simplistic thinking. It can show an ability to get rid of things that don’t really matter. This underpins the idea of Jugaad Innovation as described by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja. (Full disclosure, Simone is a friend.) They advocate for simple, cheap, and achievable innovation. They argue this mindset is often, but not exclusively, found in non-western economies. Indeed constraints encourage brilliantly simple innovation, e.g. a fridge that doesn’t need power. Such frugal innovations can improve people’s lives as well as providing a good living to innovators.
Simple can be great. “Wishing to decrease infant mortality…. Dr. Jeganathan developed a minimalist incubator from a wooden table made of locally harvested wood, a Plexiglass top and standard 100 watt light bulbs (rather than radiant coils) to maintain the baby’s temperature. Thanks to its simple design, the incubator cost only $100 to build and was easy to maintain.” (Radjou, Prabhu and Ahuja 2012, page 109). This may not be cutting edge technology but surely this is human ingenuity at its best.
Complex isn’t the same as brilliant. Complex can be brilliant but can also be a symptom a lack of focus. Simple is often brilliant. If it solves a problem cheaply, using few resources and is robust to faults then simple is unbeatable. A focus on simple yet effective can benefit entrepreneurs in remote villages in developing countries as well as the innovation teams at GE and 3M.
Simple often equals brilliant.
Read: Navu Radjou, Jaidepp Pabhu and Simone Ahuja, 2012, Jugaad Innovation, Jossey-Bass