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November 2018, Amsterdam

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Thanks SAS, but not only travellers deserve simplicity!

Business deserves simplicity too. In Stockholm airport Joerg Esser, who is no ‘extravagant freak’, was delivered a marketing message by Scandinavian Airlines that inspired him to expand on why

Why apply physics to business? As a theoretical physicist who continues to be amazed, inspired and delighted by science, the answer revealed itself recently in Stockholm airport of all places. Splashed across the screen of an automated online check-in machine installed by Scandinavian Airlines, Sweden’s national carrier, was the message: ‘You deserve simplicity!’

Jokes aside, if you love science as much as I do, it feels entirely natural to want to apply that to the world you find yourself in and, professionally, I have spent the last two decades starting up, advising and managing businesses [in the travel space for over 10 years in various roles at Thomas Cook].

The simplicity of the physics way of thinking and problem solving is truly useful in a business context

Luckily, it has been a huge bonus to discover that the simplicity of the physics way of thinking and problem solving is truly useful in a business context. What I have found is that once all the bells and whistles of mathematical jargon have been stripped away, the physics ways really can elicit surprising results. This is especially true as the shift to digital notches up a gear.

While the value science brings to business is something I don’t personally need a litmus test for, it has become clear that a concrete framework within which to apply could be helpful.

So, I’ve launched the Make it S.I.M.P.L.E. experiment. This is a work in progress to help businesses navigate complexity in a digital world.

Simple, yet puzzling

Defining a framework for applying science to business got me thinking about a conversation I had with the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who founded the Santa Fe Institute, which has been a regular destination during my post-doctoral research.

I was tutoring at the SFI’s annual Complex Systems Summer School in 1999, and Murray, who also won the 1969 Nobel Physics Prize for his work on the theory of elementary particles, would regularly appear during the lunch break to engage on the big scientific questions and topics of the day. Again and again, in conversation, he would return to his ‘peeling of the onion’ analogy, which still has me thinking about the very essence of what our subject aims to achieve.

Science helps us to solve the puzzles the world throws at us in a pioneering way

The answer lies in simplicity. ‘In the similarities we encounter between one layer [of the onion] and the next, we can understand,’ as Murray wrote in his 1995/6 paper Nature Conformable to Herself, ‘why simplicity is a useful criterion to apply in the search for the fundamental laws of physics’.

Forgive me if I sound, to steal phrase from Newton, like ‘an extravagant freak’, but the so-called ‘physics way’ is the quest to develop mental models that help us describe and navigate our messy world in the simplest possible way. The goal: to advance the quest for simplicity. Science helps us to solve the puzzles the world throws at us in a pioneering way; it advances understanding through the application of methods that are concrete, beautiful and elegant, and have a proven track record. In other words, it’s about making our mental model of the world S.I.M.P.L.E.

Business context and timeless beauty

There is a broad range of research, informative articles and books from bodies like the Harvard Business Review, the Economist Intelligence Unit and Oxford University Press, to bang home the importance of simplicity in business.

Business leaders are often given advice like ‘Keep things simple, stupid’. Meanwhile, said to be home truths include the fact that companies with short, snappy names perform better, and that shareholders value simplicity, because the most successful companies start from a simple premise…and the list goes on.

As markets evolve digitally, the need for simplicity is becoming an imperative

Platitudes aside, the application of simplicity, and the timeless beauty it engenders, has always been valued and from IKEA to Nike and Southwest Airlines there are plenty of past examples to prove it. My recent spot of SAS’s ‘You Deserve Simplicity’ marketing message in Stockholm Airport is further proof that it continues to matter! This is even truer today because, as markets evolve digitally, the need for simplicity is becoming an imperative. There are many reasons for this but two that spring to mind shouldn’t be ignored:

1. Customer experience: Digitalisation has fuelled greater transparency and choice for customers, and so any offering that makes it simple and reduces complexity is in increasingly in demand. Consumers want convenience, but they also want guidance!

[EyeforTravel’s revamped CX Strategy Summit to be held in London on May 21-22 has identified customer experience as a pressing issue]

2. Operating models: Market entry hurdles continue to tumble and firms need to rethink what they stand for. Bloated, inefficient companies offering too much at too high a price have fewer and fewer places to hide; somebody, somewhere will be doing it better! Excellence is expected; mediocrity is not an option! The good news is that sleeker operating models can bring down internal costs too.

In search of simplicity, beyond complexity

So, where does this leave us? With a puzzle! Because it strikes me that while there is a lot of advice today about the value ‘simplicity’ can deliver, there is, quite simply, not enough clarity on what this actually means! Headlines proclaim that simplicity is the ‘next big thing’, but there seems to be very little attempt to even provide a definition of what that means in a business context and how to actually make it simple! And, anybody navigating today’s complex, messy business environment, will know that simple it is anything but!

Anybody navigating today’s complex, messy business environment, will know that simple it is anything but!

This recalls a much-quoted line from US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) who once said: "For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life”.

From attempts to achieve this ‘right kind of simplicity beyond complexity’ in business emerged my S.I.M.P.L.E. framework, which is rooted in science, and in particular, the physics way of designing ‘simple models’. One always hopes for successful experiments, and while it’s still evolving, it has already proved handy in numerous business situations.

So, in the spirit of sharing and open discussion, which scientific experiment and success depends on, let me elucidate the acrostic.

S - Everything starts with a problem statement, and very often, what we are looking for in the very first instance is a solution. But no solution to a problem is ‘simple’ in absolute terms. Newton’s laws may be a simple way to describe how an apple falls from the tree, but are they a simple solution to describing the curvature of light beams by black holes? No.

The iPhone, an example from our modern world, is generally praised for being a thing of beauty aka ‘simplicity’. And, yes, it is certainly a simple solution for its ability to make calls, browse the web, listen to music, check the time and so on. However, it is not a simple solution for the problem statement of just telling the time.

I - With the benefit of hindsight (an accurate science!), simple solutions often seem intuitive. So, yes, it really is okay to settle on the solution even if it feels inevitable. On the other hand, you shouldn’t settle until you are at the point where there is nothing left to fill but the last piece of the puzzle. Big problems do not require big answers!

M - Sounds simple, right? It’s not! Finding intuitive, comprehensive and exhaustive solutions to complex business problems is anything but simple. The key point is that there are no shortcuts and no exceptions: in short, the model needs to be sufficiently meaningful to describe all aspects, elements and facets of the problem.

P - Solutions have to be concrete and actionable to deliver impact in practical terms. And only if they are practical, can they be truly impactful. Find concrete ideas, however, and they will stick.

L - Another core scientific objective is always to find light solutions that require minimum effort. In science we apply Ockham’s razor, the principle, which has the underlying premise that when there are complex alternatives to solving a problem, the simpler version is always preferable. So, while theoretically string theory could be used to describe an apple falling to the ground, Newton’s laws are better because they require minimum effort. In business, light solutions should be easy to comprehend and memorise; they should be viral in nature, and able to reach into all corners of an organisation.

E - Last but certainly not least, is the quest for elegance in business. However, the search for elegance should never be a standalone criterion, but rather a sort of overall litmus test.

Again, Murray Gell-Mann provides inspiration. He writes: ’…it is well known that a theory in elementary particle physics is more likely to be successful in describing and predicting observations if it is simple and elegant.”

Elegance implies sophistication. And, to find a simple solution to a problem statement requires deep expertise about the topic; this means bringing all unconscious experience, from all corners of the business, to the table!

Let’s just say that Da Vinci pretty much nailed it when he said: ‘Simplification is the ultimate sophistication.’

This guest column was contributed by Joerg Esser, who spent over 10 years in the travel industry in various roles at Thomas Cook. He is a regular moderator on the EyeforTravel event trail and is a consultant to Roland Berger. His views are his own.

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