Simplicity, Business 7 min read

Once You Get There, You Can Move Mountains

Steve Jobs achieved great clarity in organizational and product design using what the teams at Apple called his “simple stick.”
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.” —Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs glanced over the boxes.

“Put the software in the box,” he said.

The team looked back, puzzled.

A project lead at Apple responsible for a suite of high-end video production tools called Final Cut Studio was giving a presentation to Jobs. The issue in question was a new version of the app.

This new version included a professional color grading tool Apple recently acquired from another company. The feature was to be called “Color.” As this was a significant upgrade, the project lead decided that this was a great opportunity to create two editions of the software: one with Color, and one without.

A selection of package designs was created for review, showcasing different naming strategies for the new edition. These included things like “Final Cut Studio 2 Extended Edition,” “Final Cut Studio 2 Platinum Edition,” and “Final Cut Studio 2, With Color.”

Jobs was having none of it.

“Put Color in the Final Cut Studio box. We sell one product. Period.”

The project lead protested meekly, saying that she promised the CFO to split the app into two editions so that they would be able to track the value of the new acquisition.

“Looks like you made a big mistake,” Jobs replied, ending the meeting.

As Ken Segall writes in Inanely Simple, this form of blunt criticism became known internally at Apple as Steve Jobs’s “simple stick.” Segall was the creative director of Apple’s advertising, whose work includes the famous “Think different” campaign, and his insights come directly from working with Jobs.

Although Apple is known for the iconic simplicity and minimalism of its products, the idea of simplicity actually lies at the very core of how the company operates internally—how it’s organized, how it runs meetings, how it makes decisions, and so on. In hindsight, this is obvious: you can only imbue the spirit of simplicity in your work if it is already embodied in you. If your thinking isn’t clear, neither will your work be.

Jobs’s honesty and directness could be blunt and brutal, but it’s also the weapon he used to stop complexity from slithering its way into every domain of Apple’s operations. He wouldn’t waste a second of his time on meetings that had no clear goal. He could sense at once when those he was speaking with didn’t know what they were talking about. And he didn’t tolerate it. But the reverse is also true: he recognized talent and honesty, and he wanted his staff to be as direct with him as he was with them. This, in turn, drove them to think clearer and produce the best work of their lives.

There’s another story in the book that illustrates this extreme directness.

This took place back when Jobs was running NeXT, before his return to Apple. Segall’s team were tasked to produce ads for the NeXT Computer. Their first batch of ads tried to do something really quirky by illustrating the computer using old-fashioned black-and-white woodcut style images, which, as the author himself confesses, were “more appropriate for the Farmer’s Almanac.

Jobs hated them. He told them to come back next week with something else.

The following week Segall returned with a new batch of ads. Jobs ended up liking them, but the most interesting thing happened before they even got the chance to show their ads:

Meeting time. But as we started to pull the ads out of our portfolios, Steve said, “Hey, listen, before we look at the new stuff, I want to talk about what happened last week.”

His voice was calm. It didn’t indicate danger ahead. But as he spoke, that calm voice slowly became more angry and agitated, and then he got madder still, to the point where he talked himself into some major (and loud) verbal abuse. The condensed version went like this: “The work you showed me last week was shit. I knew it was shit, you knew it was shit, but you came all the way out here and showed it to me anyway. That’s not acceptable and I never want it to happen again. Ever.”

After this explosion, Jobs calmed down and was enthusiastic about the new ads. It’s as if, not having said anything last time, he ended up carrying within him a festering mass of insincerity, which was gnawing away at his heart all week. He had to release it. He had to be brutally honest with the team so that they knew where they stood. This may be unpleasant, uncomfortable, but it would be the truth. And, having released it, he was calm again. It’s as if Jobs just couldn’t be insincere.

Nietzsche wrote that poets “muddy the water, to make it seem deep.” The opposite of the sincerity of Jobs isn’t outright deceit, it’s a layer of pretense and hypocrisy born of muddled thinking. People try to convince themselves that the solution they don’t believe and haven’t thought through is good enough, and then hide behind committees and the status quo to avoid having to face the truth. Lacking the confidence to make their own decisions, they follow others, not realizing that those others they are following are also doing the same. Thus the blind lead the blind, and both shall fall into the ditch.

Thus, the minimalism Jobs strove for in the design of Apple’s products is, in a way, the result of his sincerity. Whenever someone would try to obfuscate their ideas because they didn’t put in the work to understand them fully, Jobs would aggressively hit them with the simple stick, shattering the confusion of complexity and leaving intact only the elements they understood and believed in. It is by ruthlessly eliminating things that make no clear sense—even if everyone else is doing them—that we arrive at a result that is simple, minimalist even, every part of it intentional, the rest having been cut.

Simplicity as a strategic advantage

Simplicity can be used as a strategy to gain an organizational advantage. For example, could certain elements of an organization be eliminated or changed to produce the same or better results? Such things include the size of your team, its structure, the way you communicate, and the way you do business. For example:

Small teams

As teams grow in size, so does complexity. Having more people work on a project doesn’t increase their output—it actually does the opposite by ballooning the volume of internal communication and so making the whole thing more difficult to manage. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos fought against this by creating what he called “two-pizza teams.” As Brad Stone writes in The Everything Store:

The entire company, he said, would restructure itself around what he called ‘two-pizza teams.’ Employees would be organized into autonomous groups of fewer than ten people—small enough that, when working late, the team members could be fed with two pizza pies.

Asynchronous communication

Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, creators of a popular project management app, is a proponent of asynchronous communication. Besides the whole company working remotely, there are no regular meetings. Instead, staff communicate by messages shared and organized via their project management app. The advantage of this is that everyone gets hours of productive, undisrupted time to focus on their work. Fried writes:

When something’s written up, people can absorb it on their own time when they have the time. It’s even better for remote teams where timezones don’t overlap. Asynchronous communication like this is the secret to being efficient in groups. Real-time is not. Real-time encourages distraction, asynchronous encourages focus.

Radical truth

Ray Dalio set out a radical truth principle at Bridgewater Associates, one of the biggest hedge funds in the world. This is not unlike Jobs’s brutal directness, except Dalio sets it up as a principle to follow for the company as a whole. At Bridgewater, mistakes are not a problem as long as they are reported promptly. What is never tolerated is hiding your mistakes. Dalio writes:

If you don’t mind being wrong on the way to being right you’ll learn a lot—and increase your effectiveness. But if you can’t tolerate being wrong, you won’t grow, you’ll make yourself and everyone around you miserable and your work environment will be marked by petty back-biting and malevolent barbs rather than by a healthy, honest search for truth.

Tiny contracts

Warren Buffett buys companies using one-page contracts. Here’s a great post by Andrew Wilkinson that shows his two-page contract to buy National Indemnity in 1967 for $8MM (~$62MM in 2021 dollars). Months of due diligence and negotiation can be replaced by a meeting and a sheet of paper. Wilkinson is himself following this philosophy with his company Tiny, avoiding months of due diligence by only buying companies whose owners he trusts and whose business case can be made on a napkin. Wilkinson writes:

Sure, we could have spent another 3 months in diligence. We could have tried to renegotiate the terms and ground them down. We could have spent weeks picking apart their management team. But we would have lost the deal, and if we didn’t lose it, they would have been miserable and our relationship would have started off on the wrong foot.

Pascal made a comment in one of his letters saying that he wrote a longer letter than usual because he didn’t have time to make it shorter. Simplicity requires work. To simplify something is to reduce it to its essentials, which necessarily means a process of selection and judgement—a perpetual process of intellectual whittling. Why is this here? Does it need to be here? Can this be done with less resources? Simplicity requires clear thinking—you need to know why something is the way it is before you can judge whether or not you can remove it or change it.

This is difficult, arduous work, but it offers great rewards. Apple’s financial success is unprecedented. People love simple products, and they are prepared to pay more for them. Buffett’s incredible success has been consistent, his financial and organizational minimalism yielding unparalleled results. A new breed of remote companies are discovering a simpler, more profitable way to work.

“Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains.” —Steve Jobs