Simplicity By Edward De Bono
CategoriesSales Consulting


  • One of the main purposes of simplicity is indeed to make life easier. Dealing with complexity is an inefficient and unnecessary waste of time, attention and mental energy. Something does not have to be comprehensive to be useful.
  • The real purpose of thinking is to abolish thinking. The human brain allows information to organize itself into routine pattern of perception and of action. So, when we look at something we instantly recognize it instead of having to work it out every time.
  • When local leaders have the ability to make their own decisions within clearly defined frameworks and with clearly defined general objectives, then the system is simpler and more responsive
  • There are times when complexity in a machine allows greater simplicity of operation
  • In any communication there is a fundamental challenge to simplicity. The main aim of communication is clarity and simplicity. Usually they go together – but not always. Communication is always understood in the context and experience of the receiver — no matter what was intended. Too simple a message may be elegant but might be open to misinterpretation

How to Simplify:

Much more important than simplicity as a value is simplicity as a habit. This means that simplicity becomes an automatic part of the design process whenever thinking is used. Values can be ignored but habits cannot be ignored

 Underlying them all are three key questions:

  1. Core purpose: WHY? Why are we doing this at all?
  2. Value: WHAT IS THE VALUE? Both the positive and negative values. Both for the user of the system and for the system itself. (Difference between value & benefit: ‘Value’ is the potential that resides in a thing and ‘Benefit’ is the delivery of that value to a person in certain circumstances)
  3. Delivery: HOW? How are we going to carry this out in practice? It is usually the delivery mechanisms which need simplifying. The purpose of any operation is to deliver value to someone. The best operations deliver value to everyone involved.


  • Do a historical review
  • Shed, slim, cut and trim (Remember: If unnecessary things add to clarity or simplicity they should be retained)
  • Listen with ears & eyes
  • Combine different functions and operations
  • Deal with the bulk and make provisions for the Exceptions
  • Restructure
  • Start afresh
  • Do Provocative Amputation: What happens if we drop this?
  • Do Wishful Thinking: ‘wouldn’t it be nice if. . .’
  • Use Ladder approach: make each small process, or part of a process, somewhat simpler a la Kizen

The Simplicity Design Process

“What is needed is not more technology design but more ‘value concept’ design. Technology can deliver almost any value we design — but we are lagging far behind in the design of value.”

The design process consists of knowing where you want to go, finding ways of getting there and considering the various factors involved. There are four aspects:

  1. Thrust: Gives a clear sense of what we are trying to do, what we are trying to achieve.
  2. Alternatives: What are the delivery mechanisms—Standard approaches? Special approaches? (Remember: Avoid temptation to settle for the first approach that seems to Work & think further)
  3. Considerations: Use these to know which the best-suited alternative. These include constraints, resources and If there’s a conflict (e.g. between cost, practicality and value or simplicity and practicality) the priorities become important. Conflicts solved by a further design process or by a straightforward ‘trade-off’
  4. Modification: Even when we have decided on the delivery mechanism there may still be a need to modify this mechanism to take into account the various considerations. (Remember: Excessive modification usually destroys any simplicity)

Remember: While operations can be designed for the bulk of users, controls and instructions have to be designed for the most basic of users.

10 rules of simplicity

  1. You need to put a very high value on simplicity—Not 2nd order objective. When things are highly complicated we do often wish for simplicity. But when things are not complicated we rarely strive to make something as simple as possible. If something is not a problem it does not get any thinking time A search for simplicity should enable us to rethink everything – not only problem areas
  2. You must be determined to seek simplicity: It is necessary to invest time, thinking energy, design effort and money in trying to make things more simple. This attitude should also be encouraged by the surrounding organization
  3. You need to understand the matter very well— If you don’t, then the result of your efforts will be “simplistic’ rather than simple. Simplicity has to be designed. In order to design something you need to know exactly what you are dealing with and what you intend to achieve. True simplicity comes from thorough understanding. It is simplicity after understanding that has a value. Simplicity before understanding is worthless.
  4. You need to design alternatives and possibilities: Analysis important is in simplification but in the end one has to ‘design’ a way forward. The first idea is unlikely to be the best—Produce more. It is not a matter of designing the ‘one right way’, but designing alternatives and possibilities, and then selecting one of them.
  5. You need to challenge and discard existing elements— Not everything that is there really needs to be there. Things which were needed at one time may be no longer needed. Where something cannot be justified then ‘shed’ it
  6. You need to be prepared to start over again—Modify if you can, if you cannot start afresh. Be clear about what you are trying to do and then set about designing a way to do it ignoring the existing system entirely. This is more difficult & expensive and less likely to be acceptable. Hence, it will need justification—What Benefits and why they cannot be gained thru’ modification
  7. You need to use concepts. Concepts provide the first stage of thinking in setting the general direction and purpose. (Remember: The precise purpose of concepts to be general, vague and blurry) The purpose of the concept is only to ‘breed’ ideas. The ideas themselves do have to be concrete and usable. Develop concept first and then find alternative ways of delivering that concept with specific ideas and concrete detail. Once you have extracted the concept you can clarify it, improve it, change it and redesign it.
  8. You may need to break things down into smaller units
  9. You need to be prepared to trade off other values for simplicity—You may need to trade off that comprehensiveness for simplicity. (e.g. Perfection vs. Simplicity) This trade-off requires a clear sense of values and priorities. Make deliberate and conscious choices
  10. You need to know for whose sake the simplicity is being designed. User or Owner, Customer or Operator, Designer or User?

A few guidelines:

  • Do One thing at a time
  • Verbalize—Think aloud. (Verbalizing forces precision on thoughts which are vague, indistinct and apparently complex. You do not have to agree with what you have just said to yourself!)
  • Breaking things down into parts and Analyse (Dealing with separate things as if they were one is a most common source of complexity We are excellent at seeking ‘what is’ but very poor at designing ‘what may be’)
  • Take Small steps: A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Sometimes you need to carve out the next step

Dangers of simplicity

  • Oversimplification: Oversimplification means carrying simplification to the point where other values are ignored. Simplification stops when the values derived from simplification are balanced out by the increasing loss of other values
  • Simplicity may be Unfair: If you do not fit into any of the simple boxes you will be unfairly forced into one of them — or ignored completely
  • Simplicity can be insensitive at times
  • Simplicity may be Boring: Richness and complexity are not the same thing. Richness is a deliberate choice — complexity is merely an absence of simplicity
  • Simplicity may kill evolution: If a system is kept rigidly simple because any deviation threatens the simplicity, then these adaptive changes may be excluded