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Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World Paperback – April 19, 2016
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One of Bloomberg Businessweek's Wall Street’s Must-Read Books of the Summer
“Whatever you want in life can be achieved if you break it down into a few basic rules. Well, that’s the theory of these two business experts, and many influential figures think likewise.” — Times (London)
“Can’t convey enough how important this is . . . Simple Rules is the nerd book of the summer.” — Tom Keene, Bloomberg TV
“At last, a book offering an ingenious way to fight back against the relentless assault of complexity and its insidious spawning of untold confusions, costs, crashes, and calamities. Simple Rules offers an exciting framework for both understanding complexity and rendering it harmless. Whether you run an organization or are simply trying to survive modern life, this book is gold.” — Chris Anderson, TED curator
“Simple Rules shows how a handful of thoughtful principles can not only sharpen the quality of your decisions, but also allow you to maintain latitude in your judgments and to see the richness of opportunity. We all deal with complexity now, and this book will show you how you can do more with less.” — Michael J. Mauboussin, head of Global Financial Strategies, Credit Suisse
“Our future will be increasingly complex, from accelerating technological change to global connectivity of federated teams. Simple Rules explains how we can manage to make meaningful progress in a world that exceeds human understanding. At DFJ, we use simple rules, like “invest in unique ideas” to support breakout winners across multiple industries undergoing profound disruption. This is a harbinger of the information economy to come.” — Steve Jurvetson, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson
“Sull and Eisenhardt have written the definitive playbook injecting sanity, creativity, and productivity into our workplaces and the other spheres of our lives. Simple Rules is brimming with clever and surprising tips, lovely stories, and compelling research that will help you spot unnecessary complexity, eliminate maddening frustration, make the right decisions faster, and have a whole lot more fun along way.” — Robert I. Sutton, best-selling author of The No Asshole Rule and coauthor of Scaling Up Excellence
From the Inside Flap
We struggle to manage complexity every day. We follow intricate diets, juggle multiple TV remotes, face too much data at work, and hack through thickets of regulation at tax time. Sull and Eisenhardt argue there's a better way: by developing a few simple rules, you can tackle even the most complex problems.
Simple rules are a hands-on tool to achieve our most pressing personal and professional objectives, from overcoming insomnia to becoming a smarter investor. Simple rules can help solve our most urgent social challenges, from setting interest rates at the Federal Reserve to protecting endangered marine wildlife.
Drawing on more than a decade of research, the authors provide a framework for developing and refining effective rules. They find insights in unexpected places, from how Tina Fey codified her Saturday Night Live experiences into rules for producing 30 Rock ( never tell a crazy person he s crazy ), to burglars rules for selecting targets ( avoid houses with a car parked outside ), to Japanese engineers using the foraging rules of slime molds to optimize Tokyo s rail system.
Whether you re struggling with information overload, pursuing opportunities with limited resources, or just trying to change your bad habits, Simple Rules provides a powerful approach to taming complexity."
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While the world is complex, simple rules describe the world in an actionable and valuable way. That is the central premise of Sull and Eisenhardt’s book. This book is a guidebook to understanding, creating, deploying, and enhancing simple rules. The authors provide a comprehensive exploration and examination of the idea of simple rules applied across nature, personal lives, society, and business.
The authors treat the reader as an adult. This is not pulp business fiction that we see where one person is selling their wares based on a single story. The ideas in the book are simple, but their explanation in the book is rather dense. You have to read this book, rather than skim it; the discussion found in the book rewards the reader for their efforts.
The book contains the simple rules for creating and applying simple rules. There are three ‘rules for rules’ :
1. Figure out what will move the needle
2. Choose a bottleneck, a constraint that is holding you back
3. Craft the rules
There are two basic groups of rules. Rules for making better decisions include:
> Boundary rules – help decide between two mutually exclusive alternatives
> Prioritization rules – provide the basis for ranking alternatives and assigning
> Stopping rules – when do we reverse a decision or take a different course
Rules for doing things better include:
> How to rules – guide the basics of executing tasks
> Coordination rules – getting things done when there are multiple actors
> Timing rules – guidelines for when to take action
Each set of rules is the focus of its own chapter in the book.
Reading Simple Rules takes some persistence and focus but it is well worth the effort. The book’s density comes from a rare combination of the author’s desire to tell compelling stories and their academic background which calls for telling complete stories. It is a cross between the story telling style of a Malcolm Gladwell and the thoughtful prose and thinking of a Peter Drucker.
The idea behind simple rules and their application is elegant, actionable, and particularly helpful in the face of demands to be more agile and flexible.
The book contains multiple examples of simple rules developed by others and the context in which those rules work. This is critical to help the reader understand where the rules come from, why they are the way they are and how that can apply to you.
The book goes into the processes, approaches, and questions involved in creating simple rules. Across multiple instances, Sull and Eisenhardt share the behind the scenes thinking people went through to create rules.
The chapter on Simple Rules as strategy is terrific and should be required reading for any business executive.
The examples are rather long, but it is invaluable in building the understanding to apply these rules. It is a part other authors leave out, making their ideas seem more platitudes than practices. This book contains practices.
The case stories cross a wide range of situations from butterflies, honeybees to religious orders and up, and coming companies. The sheer breadth of stories illustrates that the ideas are real and readily applicable to multiple situations.
Chapters on applying simple rules to your personal life are illustrative and helpful. These chapters demonstrate the broad applicability of the idea as well as the context behind different situations where rules apply. These are not self-help chapters filled with assertions; rather they are the information needed for reflection to help you in a meaningful way.
The case stories are sometimes long on explanation which makes the book feel like a heavy read, particularly if you are used to skimming a business book for ideas. In this case, take the time to read as the depth of explanation often includes the micro-insights needed for execution.
Not every case story is business related. This may frustrate people as they wonder how the history of the Jesuits, California landscaping or strength training matter. However, they do not only to illustrate the examples but also to demonstrate the power of simple rules.
The prose is occasionally self referential, which is something rare in business books. While personal experience is helpful, it often adds words and weight to the book that is unnecessary given the other strong stories supporting these ideas.
Highly recommended and a book I will return to time and time again. Particularly helpful when you are stuck and the things that worked are not working. Chances are the rules need to change.
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 author’s 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.
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.
Most of the insights in the book are interesting, many are surprising, and almost all of them can be put into practice. I was impressed by the shear range of applications for simple rules. As a teacher, I’m excited to use the fresh examples with my students. All in all, it’s a wonderful book—easily on par with the best popular business books out there. Highly recommended!