Keep it simple

As contemporary society gets more complex, several actors are trying to re-establish a certain simplicity that allows for clarity and control. For instance, John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, wrote a few years ago the “Laws of Simplicity” reflecting on ways to pair down to basics..

Two new books  (to be released almost simultaneously)  pick up the importance of establishing “simplicity” in  society and government:

Irene Etzkorn and Alan Siegel, from  Siegel+Gale,  describe how organizations can successfully achieve simplicity in their new book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity. The book focuses on how to realize the three fundamental principles of simplicity:

  1. Clarity  (expressing meaning clearly and simply),
  2. Transparency (laying bare the underlying truth whatever it reveals) and
  3. Usability (making something fit for purpose)

It starts by outlining how complexity undermines “government and business, and putting our health and even our lives at risk”.  Consider the following examples of common complexity:

  • Marquis Dunson died in 2002 after his parents gave the one-year-old Infants’ Tylenol for three days to treat his cold symptoms. In the subsequent lawsuit, which resulted in a $5 million award, the plaintiffs argued that the warning labels and directions on the Infants’ Tylenol label did not make clear that an overdose of acetaminophen, Tylenol’s active ingredient, could lead to liver failure. The FDA estimates that an average of 458 deaths each year are due to acetaminophen overdoses.
  • Southern Medical Journal published a study that estimated a dermatologist signs his or her name 29,376 times a year. Can someone do anything thirty thousand times a year with focus and certainty?
  • The United States was founded and governed for over two centuries on the basis of a document that is six pages long. That is 0.1 percent of the length of the current income tax code, which currently runs a whopping fourteen thousand pages.”

The book subsequently explain the wide-ranging applications of simplicity—how it works and why it benefits us, hoping to develop “ a movement toward reduction of societal, governmental, and corporate complexity”.

An advocate for the movement toward simplicity can also be found in Cass Sunstein, whose new book focuses on Simpler: The Future of Government”, (to be released on April 9 – Read FT review), reflecting on his time at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). In a recent article on “Regulatory Moneyball”  in Foreign Affairs, he  reviews the book’s main findings.  Sunstein argues for a more disciplined and “simple” approach to limit the complexities of governance and rule-making:

“[E]xcessive regulation is a genuine concern, and agencies should not use their authority to consider qualitative factors as a license to do whatever they like. While I was at OIRA, the Obama administration took a number of steps to ensure a disciplined approach. The first step was to promote accountability by recommending that all significant regulations be accompanied by a simple table that offered three things: first, a clear statement of both the quantitative and the qualitative costs and benefits of the proposed or final action; second, a presentation of any uncertainties; and third, similar information for reasonable alternatives to the action. In a related step, OIRA required agencies to include a clear, simple executive summary of any new rules, explaining what they were doing and why and offering a crisp account of the costs and benefits, both quantitative and qualitative. Many federal rules are extremely long and complex, and it is hard for people to know what they are trying to do and why. A clear summary can help a great deal.”

See below for John Maeda’s TED Talk.

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