Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World

My dietitian friend and client Julie Meek helps busy executives and leaders maintain their health, fitness and energy. This is an important issue for these leaders, because they often have chaotic, unpredictable lifestyles, so it’s difficult for them to get into a routine of regular meals, regular exercise, or regular down time.

So Julie doesn’t give them routines. Instead, she gives them rules – like this: “No drinking alcohol alone on a business trip” (for example, in flight, in the airline lounge, from the hotel mini-bar).

The beauty of this rule is that it’s not open to interpretation and doesn’t rely on the person making a judgement call. It’s simple to understand, simple to apply (I said simple, not easy!), and simple to measure.

It’s exactly the kind of rule authors Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt describe in their book Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World.

Simple rules are shortcuts to simplify the way we process information.

At first glance, they might sound hopelessly inadequate in our complex world. But the right rules applied correctly can cut through the complex clutter.

For example, Julie’s rule for her clients won’t magically fix everything in their diet. And it’s easy to circumvent the rule so it isn’t effective (for example, by increasing your alcohol intake at other times). But that’s not the point. The rule isn’t intended to solve every problem; it’s intended to address one common problem.

The authors say simple rules work for three reasons:

  1. They allow for flexibility, particularly in non-routine situations.
  2. They can match or even outperform more sophisticated decision models, especially in uncertain environments.
  3. They are easy to remember, so it’s more likely people will use them – and, as a result, they promote collective behaviour.

In the book, the authors not only explain why simple rules are effective, but also break them down into different types, help you create your own simple rules, and advise on how to make them work in a team.

Throughout the book, they tell many stories and case studies from a wide range of fields, including: How Tina Fey produced the hit comedy 30 Rock, how judges decide whether to grant bail, how the United States Federal Reserve Board fixes interest rates, and more.

It’s an easy read, and full of practical strategies that will help any leader who needs help dealing regularly with challenging decisions in a complex world.

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