The relationship between excellence and simplicity

Earlier this week I listened to Alon Cohen, the co-founder of Houzz (via the Entrepreneurial Leaders Podcast I mentioned here), talk about his career experiences and lessons learned.  A core theme, as well as the title of his talk, was “Making Complicated Things Simple” – which I think is a characteristic of many great products (like Houzz), and also of mastery more generally.  Simplicity can be borne from ignorance or misunderstanding, of course, but the simplicity that results from putting in long hours wrestling with a problem is powerful.

Some of the major blessings and curses of this technological era are the explosions of data, information sources, and options.  Never before have we had access to so many resources to solve problems and learn.  The costs of this abundance are the ever increasing demands on our time – more choices and more noise to filter through.  Now, more than ever, simplicity is an important component of excellence.  Products and experts that help us focus on what matters create significant value – whether it be through interaction design (e.g., Uber’s two taps to book a ride), simplifying workflows (e.g., Mark43‘s tools for police departments), or creating frameworks to help us understand the world and make otherwise ambiguous decisions.

On the product front in Chicago, SMS Assist reduces the complexity of facilities maintenance for companies with a national presence, and Sprout Social helps companies manage social media presences at scale.  On the expert front, Warren Buffett’s annual letters lay out the frameworks through which he simplifies the world.  Clay Christensen’s Innovators’ Dilemma gives us a way to understand the complex topic of why incumbents often struggle to fend off disruptive startups.

As we build products and careers, I think the question implied by Alon’s talk is a good one to ask ourselves – how am I helping to create the right kind of simplicity? Would love to hear your thoughts – reach out here.

H/T to Heinz Marketing for the image.

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Jobs that need to be done

Clay Christensen’s “Jobs-to-be-done” framework is one of the most fundamental, but interesting ways to look at products and businesses.  I think there’s a lot to be gained by zooming in on important jobs that a consumer is trying to accomplish, and having a clear point of view on how your product helps them complete it.  Ideally, your product helps them perform a job that they haven’t been able to before (but really wanted to), or helps them complete an important job in a uniquely superior way.

One of my favorite examples of this in Chicago is Apervita, which is helping providers and researchers perform hard but important jobs by making a broad array of health analytics more accessible at the point of care. By doing so, they improve both the quality of care we receive and reduces system cost.

So, I want to share some “jobs” that I don’t think are being done well today.  These aren’t necessarily ideas that can be the basis of a full company – but just jobs I wish had better tools to help people perform them:

  • Studying: After reading Make It Stick, I’ve become convinced that the way we are taught to study in the US is fundamentally wrong.  Highlighting, re-reading, and many of the other common practices that we associate with learning material are not optimal at best, and highly ineffective at worst.  While Khan Academy, Treehouse, and many other online learning services have started to take us down the right path, I think there’s an opening for a product that nudges us to study / learn in ways that lead to more durable recall over time.
  • Habit formation / adherence: Research is continually improving what we “know” as a society, but there’s a gap between knowledge and implementation (especially on the consumer side) that few products help us bridge today. I’m not so sure this is a single product, but more likely principles that need to be embedded into products with other use cases (e.g., weight loss).
  • Student loan education: Though I’m bullish on the ability of ed-tech to bring down the costs of quality education in the very long run, the current and next few generations of students will likely be financing large parts of their educations through loans.  In general, I don’t think there are widely used products that help prospective students and recent graduates understand the cost, and best navigate their way out of debt.

This is just an initial list that I plan on returning to and revising over time.  Are there any jobs you wish were better solved that I’m missing? Any disagreements on the above? Would love to hear your thoughts!