The Simplicity Cycle

Dan Ward

Available for download or purchase at
DNI Review by Chet Richards, Editor
26 July 2007

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be …

Coffee this morning was brewed by the best pot I’ve ever owned. The coffee was fine, but the machine, a fairly new Braun, is fantastic because it has only one control: an “On” switch. Ah, simplicity, just what you need at 5 a.m.

Dan Ward’s entertaining little primer on the subject won’t teach you anything about simplicity that you don’t already know, but it may remind you of some ideas you’ve forgotten. One of these, probably the most important, is that simplicity requires lots of hard work, conscious, ruthless, and creative work. As Stephen Wolfram demonstrated (and demonstrated and demonstrated) in A New Kind of Science, complexity is the natural order of the universe. Left to themselves, even very simple systems will produce complexity. If you want simplicity, you have to fight for it.

It turns out, according to Ward, that any project will eventually encounter a fork in the road. A system always starts out simple – hard to get more simple than a blank sheet of paper – but then people start adding features to give it capability. After a while, it’s no longer obvious how to make the thing work, and even worse, interactions between the components begin to spawn unintended consequences. At some point, the fork in the road, the people working on the project have a choice to make: Add more structure in an attempt to control the behavior of the system, or start taking things out in order to make the system more predictable and easier to use. The first choice is the easiest, since it doesn’t involve difficult decisions and trade-offs, but it turns a complex system into a complicated and often useless one. The second can turn a complex system into an elegant one.

I see this in writing projects. At some point, if the book or article is going to be any good, revisions start taking more out then they put in. Words, sentences, paragraphs, sometimes even whole chapters disappear, and style and meaning begin to emerge. It can be pretty exciting. Ward’s point is that if your project hasn’t reached this stage, then it’s still more complex – if not more complicated – than it needs to be.

Although Ward limits his discussion to design projects, complexity is also a mischievous demon in the world of strategy. As Boyd noted:

Complexity (technical, organizational, operational, etc.) causes commanders and subordinates alike to be captured by their own internal dynamics or interactions — hence they cannot adapt to rapidly changing external (or even internal) circumstances.

Patterns of Conflict, p. 176

Maneuver warfare, the doctrine of the Marine Corps and a modern development of blitzkrieg tactics, rests on a foundation of simplicity. General Hermann Balck, whom the Germans considered as one of their best field commanders, told Boyd that the big advantage of basing a “command and control” system on intent, trust, and initiative was that it fosters an “internal simplicity that permitted rapid adaptability,” which is always useful when facing a thinking opponent.

Ward, in the manner of another system simplifier, Sun Tzu, doesn’t offer up a cookbook for creating systems. Instead, he proposes and, by using clever graphs, illustrates several themes that, if you ponder them, can set you on the path to designing emotionally rewarding systems. Like Sun Tzu or Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Elements of Style, this is a little tome that you can keep in the center drawer of your desk and take out from time to time just to glance through. The book is obviously the product of its own advice: simple, functional, elegant.

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