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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100 ways of solving a problem

Part of my daily routine is to listen to podcasts – when I’m walking to lunch, or in transit without a seat, I usually open up Stitcher and load up my podcast list.  At the top of that list nowadays is Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series.  If you’re interested in starting your own business, or in high tech startups more generally, this podcast is a must listen.  Every week or so, this program brings in either a successful founder, executive, or investor in high tech related businesses to spend an hour sharing their story, lessons learned, and answer questions; guests have ranged from Ben Horowitz of Opsware and Andreesen Horowitz fame, through to Sal Khan of Khan Academy.

While ETL is a treasure trove of interesting lessons, one of the most interesting exercises was the idea of generating 100 ways to solve a problem, featured in Tina Seelig’s talk. What’s so brilliant about this is that it forces a deep understanding of both the problem, the mechanisms that cause it, and all of the levers one might pull to create change.  All of the simple answers and platitudes (which likely haven’t been implemented for a good reason), melt away in the face of the sheer volume and depth required to generate 100 different solutions.  This approach also forces orthogonal thinking, which leads to the kinds of disruptive innovations we all chase (along with many bad ideas).  The exercise achieves many of the same ends as Google’s 10x philosophy  – avoiding incrementalism, and being willing to reimagine the entire thing from the ground up, but provides a system to help spark the necessary frame of mind.  Definitely something I want to store away for future use.

Any other ETL listeners out there?  Would love to hear your thoughts on your favorite episodes.  If not, let me know what some of your favorite problem solving techniques are.