Don't Let Complexity Bog Down Your Business

Apple expert Ken Segall says the company's ‘insanely simple’ approach can be implemented by any business — but it takes leadership, commitment and investment

By Diane Merlino

If you’ve got internal processes that make it tough to generate and implement new ideas and projects, you’ve got a big problem.

Complexity inside a business — particularly in the form of institutionalized processes that bog things down — is evil, according to Ken Segall, author of Insanely Simple. The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success (Portfolio Penguin, April 2012).

Segall has worked as creative director for a number of tech/computer companies, including Dell, Intel and Apple, where he worked closely with Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs for more than a decade. As a result of his first-hand experiences in all three companies, he has deep-dive insights into how Apple’s near-religious dedication to simplicity helped propel the company to greatness — and what can happen in companies that allow complexity to muck up the works.

Segall maintains that any company can implement and benefit from the principles of simplicity practiced by Apple — but it takes leadership, commitment, and investment. This is the second of three articles based on a discussion between Segall and Diane Merlino. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Where do traits like leadership, vision, talent, intelligence, experience and hard work fit into a company dedicated to simplicity?Apple’s love of simplicity has helped unify everything they do to keep them on their path and achieve greatness. But it would be too simple to say ‘if you pursue the path of simplicity all will be wonderful and you, too, can become the most valuable company on earth.’ Obviously, it takes an incredible amount more than that. But this Applelogolevel of simplicity — the thread throughout everything Apple does — is a hugely important thing in helping them achieve the success they have had to date.

It does require leadership; it takes strength, it takes commitment, it takes investment — all the stuff only a leader can provide. That’s what Steve [Jobs] provided. His love of simplicity was implicit in everything he did as he directed the company and the people on various projects. Because Steve had this love of simplicity, and because he had such command over his organization, he was able to get everyone to fall in behind him in that way of thinking so he could get the most out of the power of simplicity.

So the CEO or President of a company needs to be dedicated to the principles of simplicity in order for them to be effective?
Well, an individual in a company can be guided by the principles of simplicity and that, in theory, will help that person be more successful and more valuable because good things will happen as a result. However, in the context of an organization one person can only do so much. The manager of a group can provide the leadership within that group, and hopefully create an island of simplicity.

But if you want the entire company to fall in line, it requires leadership from the top. In most organizations, there are institutionalized processes that have become deeply imbedded in the culture over time, and that make things more complicated. Anybody who tries to change things is normally shunned with the old, ‘we don’t do things that way here’ line, or ‘if you want to fit in you better get with the system.’ In situations like that you really do need leadership from the highest level.

You’ve had experience working on ad and marketing campaigns for Dell and Intel. Did you observe the impact of complexity-inducing institutionalized processes at those companies?
Yes, very much so. In the book I use Dell and Intel as a counterpoint to the way Apple works. I did a similar job with each of these companies. I was the ad agency creative director, not working inside the companies but working very closely with the top people in the marketing group, and with access ultimately to the CEO. If I had only worked at Apple I probably never would have written a book. I would have thought it was a great place to work and they did wonderful things, and I would have been in awe of the company. It was only because I worked with these other companies that I wrote the book.

My colleagues and I would find ourselves having conversations about why it had to be so complicated, and I couldn’t help but think, ‘Well, back at Apple we would have done it this way or that way.’ That argument actually did a get a lot of response inside those other companies. I had a lot of people who agreed with me but found themselves basically powerless to enact any substantial change because they were in those situations where processes were deeply imbedded in the company, and they didn’t have the power to change them.

Do you have any insights for companies that do have these institutionalized processes, or for the folks who work in those companies and who want to change things? There must be more companies than not in those situations.
You’re exactly right; there are obviously far more companies than not who are suffering with the effects of Segallstorycomplexity in their system. I would love to say any company could improve if they just followed these steps, but the harsh reality is that some companies are probably unable to change for many reasons.

It could be that the president or CEO happens to believe strongly in the current way they are working. Dell was a very good example of that. There was a lot of competition between independent groups within Dell, where they only cared about their own group. They didn’t care about each other, and they didn’t have the overall benefit of Dell in mind. So they would end up doing some crazy things — a little crazy to outside observers, anyway.

For example?
Like when the business side at Dell was using a different logo than the consumer side, you have to wonder why. It’s marketing 101 that your company has one logo. But they didn’t care about that at Dell. It was different people running different shows, and they each did what they did, and they didn’t care what the other guy did. Actually they just changed that recently so they finally do have the same logo. But for many, many years they had different ones.

That’s the kind of thing that’s obvious for anyone to see, but Michael Dell apparently wasn’t particularly bothered by it. I was told he liked to see the groups compete, he thought it made a better company. So what some people see as adding complications, other people see as a great way to force people to perform at higher and higher levels because they’re in constant competition with one another.

There may be benefits to working that way, but it’s the theory in my book that Apple doesn’t work that way, and Apple is more successful than any of them — in fact, Apple is more successful than all of them rolled together. That’s pretty good evidence that the way Apple works is more effective. But some people will just never change, some companies will never change.

What about the people who work in companies like that?
My only advice to people who are working in places where you can’t change things, or where it seems like such an incredible uphill climb is — I’m sorry to say — you should probably find a new job. If you’re the kind of person who likes to work in an environment that fosters simplicity and you’re not going to get it where you are, then there are plenty of companies on earth where you can find greater happiness. 

Is the simplicity-focused Apple way of doing things possible for any company to adopt?
This is a funny observation that my colleagues and I always used to make. What Apple does is one of the most open playbooks in business history; there’s no secret, anybody can look at it. Let me take that back one step. There are obviously big secrets about their products and their brains and their creative ideas — that kind of thing. That’s what they really own, and that nobody will ever see.

But how they go about doing business is an open book. You can see how integrated all their marketing efforts are, you can see how simple their product naming is, you can see how simple their product line is. All these things are obvious to anyone who looks at it, and yet so few companies try to take lessons from it. I find that to be a curious thing. That’s actually one of the big reasons I wrote the book; if it’s so obvious, why aren’t people doing it?

Why aren’t more businesses doing it then?
First of all you have to believe in it. And secondly, it takes an awful lot of work and commitment — commitment of time and money. And a lot of companies will just say, ‘Why should we do it that way, it’s just going to cost us more and we’re not going to make as much profit, so we’re not doing that because we’re a business.’

Steve Jobs didn’t like to spend money — I can tell you that. He made a lot of decisions as a good businessman based on what would be cheaper. But he would never compromise on the quality and he would always be willing to pay extra for the quality.

How did that willingness to pay extra for quality translate into something specific Apple did?
The example I use in my book is the Apple stores, which are made with materials that are super high quality — and probably 99% of the people on earth would never, ever realize that as they’re in the store. They would get an overall feeling of quality, but they would never be able to put their finger on it. Steve thought those things were important, and they were worth investing in.

I think most companies would pass on that, as we’ve seen. For example, when Gateway created their line of stores that failed miserably, they were very cut-rate-looking kinds of places. Apple did something that very few computer companies would have done. They invested in these things and created, I believe, the most successful retail chain on earth, making more money per square foot than Tiffany. That’s pretty amazing.

What is it that actually costs money in implementing simplicity? Is it the cost of quality?
From the marketing side of things, if you go to the Apple store on Black Friday and you get in line there — as you have to at a lot of stores — they’ll come out and hand you a brochure they created just for that one day. And it’s on this really thick, quality paper. Every time I see that I think, wow, aren’t they overspending on this silly little thing?

But they just like to do everything in top quality. They believe that it all adds up, and people have a feeling about InsanelySimplewithborderApple as a result, which comes into play when they think about buying a new phone or a new computer or whatever. It’s something inside of your head that says ‘these guys are my kind of people, they care about quality.’ Even though you may never consciously think that, it’s a feeling you get.

Steve was willing to pay extra to get better directors for his commercials, and to use the best materials for the products, all that kind of stuff. And hiring — Steve had a huge thing about hiring only the absolutely most brilliant people you could find, and they cost more than the other people. So there was all this stuff he had to invest in.

Apple has a high operating cost, which enables them to create this overall feeling of quality, which creates a larger market, which more than compensates for their operating costs. It’s a wonderful circle of life kind of situation.

One of the principles in your book is that ‘simplicity is in a hurry.’ What’s that about?In any business you come up against situations — and it might be some kind of institutionalized process — that says ‘you should take your sweet time and make sure you really, really do this right.’ Obviously I’m not proposing that you don’t do it right, but common sense has to come into play, too. You can try to build an advantage, and take so much time to get it to market that it isn’t as much of an advantage as it would have been a month earlier, because everyone is moving along and everyone is having ideas.

Apple, and Steve Jobs in particular, had a particularly good sense of how quickly they needed to move. And when you do move quickly, it’s like a natural defense against complexities seeping into the process.

Please also see the Oct. 3 article, part one in the series, Do As Apple Does: Simple Down for Success 

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