Simple Rules: How to Succeed in a Complex World Paperback – 8 Sep 2016
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The authors' informative and fascinating manner reveals how we can create a handful of simple rules to use for particular situations. A solid guide to navigating a complicated world (Press Association)
'Want to lose weight? A decent night's sleep? Write a great novel or be better at internet dating? Well, the best way is establish a set of simple rules . . . A fascinating book' The TimesSee all Product description
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In other words, you could say that my motto is to use “as complicated rules as I can handle”
It’s no exaggeration, then, to say that the authors and I start from pretty much the opposite side of the spectrum, and it is therefore with great interest that I picked up this book. Also, I went to the same school as the main author and he seems to have been teaching at the business school I attended (and at the time when I attended, funnily enough, though I don’t seem to remember him) and that gave me the comfort to buy the book and learn something.
The book has three parts.
The first part of the book is an apology for and a wordy taxonomy of “simple rules,” supported by examples. Rules for making decisions come under three categories: “boundary rules” (yay or nay), “prioritizing rules” (a > b > c) and “stopping rules” (e.g. when to acknowledge that you’re going to have to propose to your girlfriend). Rules for doing things better also come under three categories: “how to” rules distil an art into a small set of principles; “coordination rules” are used by units of a large ensemble to lend it its macro properties; “timing rules” and “time pacing” rules guide when to take action. I could not tell apart “stopping rules” from “timing rules” but maybe that’s just me.
Next comes a chapter on how to craft rules. Natural selection does plenty of crafting (I can see how most of nature’s “coordination rules” are generated along those lines), but we are encouraged to “codify personal experience,” “draw on the experience of others,” “distil scientific evidence,” and “negotiate an agreement” on what rules to follow.
Finally comes the third and longest part of the book, which is a laundry list of cases where “simple rules” were applied. I found it very tedious and evenly split between companies I never heard of that followed closely the advice of the author and famous/successful companies and individuals who did not really follow simple rules at all. In particular, four pieces of advice are given:
1. find what will move the needles;
2. choose a bottleneck;
3. craft the rules;
4. change the rules when the facts on the ground change.
The successful examples I’d heard of before only really seemed to be following the fourth piece of advice, which to me makes total sense.
I could have done without the last 110 pages of this book basically.
I can totally see how a single athlete or gambler or performer or criminal acting without ready access to a cheatsheet or a computer would do well to stick to a couple basic rules. But in a world where Formula 1 pitstop strategies are decided by teams of scientists using stochastic programming I think the whole concept is a bit of a gimmick, and sadly that’s also how I ended up feeling about the book.
APPENDIX OF SIMPLE RULES (SPOILER ALERT WRIT LARGE!!)
Michael Pollan rule:
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Surgeon General WWII triage rules:
1. Sort into following categories
---> Stable vital signs: Green
---> Unlikely to survive even with heroic medical intervention: Black
---> Badly injured (a shot at survival, but only if they receive immediate attention: Red
---> Others: Yellow
2. Give those with black tag palliative care
3. Treat the rest in the order Red, Yellow, Green
HF rules for investing in Yeltsin Russia:
1. Have revenues of $100 million to $500 million
2. Compete in an industry in which we have previously invested
3. Offer products the typical Russina family might purchase if they had an extra $100 to spend per month
4. Work only with executives who know criminals but are not criminals themselves
1. report damage
2. keep it clean
3. no smoking
4. fill'er up
5. return on time
6. pets in carriers
1. Do not copy recipes by other chefs
2. Do not pass proprietary information from a chef on to others without permission
3. Always acknowledge the author of the recipe
Rules judges actually follow (but shouldn't) when deciding on bail:
1. Did the prosecution either request conditional bail or oppose bail altogether?
2. Were conditions imposed on the bail by a judge earlier in the process?
3. Did a previous court insist on keeping the defendant in custody?
Burglars' rule for breaking in:
Avoid houses with a vehicle parked outside
1. The project must further the quest for fundamental scientific understanding
2. The project just have a practical use
Obama's rules for sending in the drones:
1. Does the target pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people?
2. Are there on other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat?
3. Is there near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured?
Cash-strapped private Brazilian railway CEO's (Alex Behring's) rules during financial crisis:
1. Projects that remove bottlenecks to growing revenues
2. Projects that provide benefits immediately
3. Projects with minimal up-front expenditures
4. Projects that re-use existing resources
Old Mesopotamian rule for investment:
A man should place his money one third in land, a third into merchandise, and keep a third in hand
Male crickets:"Choose a mate who meets your quality threshold"
Loeb's stopping rule:
If an investment loses 10 percent of its initial value, sell it
Rules to stop eating:
Parisian: Stop eating when I start feeling full
Chicago: Stop eating when I run out of a beverage
Chicago (bis): Stop eating when the TV show I'm watching is over
Scott Fischer's Everest climbing rule:
If you aren't at the top by two o'clock, it's time to turn around
Donald Sull's bouncer rules:
1. Don't let trouble in the door
2. Stay sober until the last patron leaves
3. Double up for heavy metal, ska and punk bands
4. Keep the bikers on your side
Lobby's sports commentary how-to rules
1. set the scene;
2. describe the action;
3. give the score or results, regularly and succinctly;
4. explain, without interrupting, the stadium's reaction to the game's event;
5. share "homework," such as historical facts and figures or personal information;
6. assess the significance of the occasion and key moments
US Forest Service how-to rules
1. start an escape fire in the path of the advancing fire if possible;
2. go to where the fuel is thinner;
3. turn toward the fire and try to work through it;
4. don't let the fire choose the spot where it hits you
White Stripes how to rules:
1. no blues;
2. no guitar solos;
3. no slide guitar;
4. no covers (hugely broken later, btw);
5. no bass
Elmore Leonard how to rules:
1. avoid prologues;
2. never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue;
3. try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip
Google hiring rules:
1. look for eccentricity;
2. look for strong referrals from other Google employees;
3. avoid anyone with even the smallest inaccuracy on their resume
Locust coordination rules:
1. flee from locusts chasing you from behind
2. try to eat the locust in front of you if it gets too close
The Second City coordination rules:
1. build on whatever is said or done just beforehand by saying "Yes, and..."
2. don't tell jokes (because they stifle an emerging storyline by imposing an artificial punchline into an organic situation@
3. make others look good
Naploeon's "coordination" rule:
"march toward the sound of gunfire"
Insomniacs' timing rules:
1. get up at the same time every morning;
2. avoid going to bed until you feel sleepy;
3. do not stay in bed if you are not sleeping;
4. reduce the time spent in bed
Migrating dragonflies' time-pacing rules:
0. avoid headwinds and instead surf the prevailing breezes (not a time-pacing rule)
1. fly only when the nighttime temperature falls for two consecutive nights
2. stay put on windy days
Hilltopping rules for butterflies (from natural selection):
1. fly uphill most of the time
2. fly toward the highest slope in sight
3. pause to check out local peaks, even if they are not the highest, but leave if you do not get lucky right away"
Standup comedians' rule (from natural selection)
"don't steal jokes" (probably inversely related to success, but hey)
Tina Fey's rules (from codifying personal experience)
4. when hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir;
9. never tell a crazy person he's crazy
Slime propagating algorithm (from which the Tokyo tube drew "experience")
1. begin by searching randomly in many directions for food;
2. when you find food, thicken the tube;
3. when you don't find food, shrink the tube
Roomba vacuum cleaner (presumed) rules:
1. turn when you hit an object;
2. spiral when caught in a corner;
3. return to the docking station when power is about to run out
NOAA negotiated rule:
"all boats must stay two hundred yards away from the whales and four hundred yards away from their path"
Shannon's three rules for eating:
1. eat breakfast;
2. stay hydrated;
3. eat as much as you want of anything that can be picked, plucked or killed
The authors believe that this way of thinking – developed with over a decade of research - can help you achieve practically everything, whether it is a personal matter such as overcoming insomnia or something more professional such as being a better manager or a smarter investor.
Will this work for you? That can be a harder question to answer, as certainly much of the advice given appears to be fairly clear and sensible, yet the implementation and realisation is in the hands of the reader. If you don’t set out with the expectation that this is a “miracle cure” maybe you will be pleasantly surprised with any benefits you feel that you have received. A lot can depend on the reader and how they organise themselves. If you start with a “cluttered mind” then any streamlining will be an improvement. The more structured and simplified your life is, perhaps the harder it may be to perceive a benefit. You can, however, always polish things just a little more.
This was an interesting read. It put some things into focus and provoked some thoughts. To this reader it might not have been “revolutionary” in itself – feeling “simple” or “basic” or “matter-of-fact” is actually a positive accolade here, so don’t write this book off either. Simplicity is not bad and it can feel hard or uncomfortable simplifying matters as we are perhaps expected to believe that complexity is somehow better or more advanced. As the book notes, “…simple rules allow the members of a community to synchronize their activities with one another on the fly. As a result, communities can do things that would be impossible for their individual members to achieve on their own.”
Complexity can work against you and there are no prizes or benefits necessarily due to thoroughness. The authors wrote: “Meeting complexity with complexity can create more confusion than it resolves. The policies governing U.S. income taxes totalled 3.8 million words as of 2010… That book is the U.S. tax code. Such an exhaustive tome should leave nothing to chance. And yet, when forty-five tax professionals were given identical data to calculate one fictional family's tax bill, they came up with forty-five different estimates of the couple's tax liability, ranging from $36,322 to $94,438. The tax code is so confusing, even IRS experts give the wrong advice one time out of three. To navigate this labyrinth, U.S. citizens employ 1.2 million tax preparers, more than all the police and fire-fighters in the country combined.”
Simplicity can have its benefits in many ways. Even if you don’t perceive that you need to change, this book can broaden your horizons and, well, maybe some changes will emerge through osmosis. If you have a wish to change, it might be a powerful weapon to add to your arsenal. It is worth a read in any case.
Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, written by Donald Sull & Kathleen M. Eisenhardt and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780544409903, 288 pages. YYYY
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