It was Confucius who said that “life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” I’m going to explain why achieving simplicity matters, and how organizing strategy around the number six and the shape of a hexagon can play a part in helping leaders and teams cut through the complexity that gets in the way of delivering on strategy, greater value, and a more fulfilling work experience.
The business cost of complexity is huge, in both financial and emotional terms. Even before COVID-19 changed the way we live and work, the sheer disruption caused by automation and the need to constantly upgrade systems and skills had increased workplace stress significantly. Recent research shows that six in 10 workers in developed economies experience stress, and there are estimates that time taken off owing to stress-related illnesses costs businesses billions of dollars annually. And for what gain? Despite all the investment in technology, global productivity remains stubbornly weak or stagnant. So the problems that derive from complexity, it would seem, are everywhere.
In particular are the challenges of attempting to mesh humans and machines, two very different complex systems. Consider the Boeing 737 Max 8 jet crashes in 2018 and 2019, which took the lives of 346 people. The authors of the Joint Authority Technical Review (pdf) subsequently submitted to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) noted that “some of the broader recommendations derive from the increasing complexity of aircraft systems” and that “while human–machine interactions are at the core of all aviation accidents and are implicated in the two B737 MAX accidents, the FAA has very few human factors and human system integration experts on its certification staff.”
This latter point about not having enough experts who could verify that those operating the planes understood the complex systems is astounding. Technology is likely to advance in complexity with each new model of airplane and many other machines and systems. The consequences are real for Boeing: The cost of grounding the planes is US$1 billion and rising. The families of those who were lost cannot even begin to calculate their losses.
There is a way to avoid becoming overwhelmed by complexity, but it takes conscious effort. To start, it is helpful to enumerate exactly what it is we want to achieve — and simplicity can be assigned a number. And the process of navigating complexity can be assigned a shape. This gives structure to simplification. For me, the number is six and the shape is a hexagon.
The maxims I use that can help leaders reframe their complex lives are “keep it simple” and “learn from nature.” This essay explores why and how to use numbers and shapes to organize business and life, thus reducing stress and improving decision making.
The Simplicity Principle
The human desire for simplicity is ancient, and especially evident during times in which society undergoes upheaval. In the Middle Ages, a time that saw the arrival of new technology such as the printing press and mechanical clocks (not to mention pandemics), a Franciscan friar named William of Ockham warned that “plurality should not be posited without necessity” — a call for minimalism, which today is known as Ockham’s (or Occam’s) razor. A 20th-century rallying cry to keep complexity at bay is the military design principle KISS (keep it simple, stupid).
What about the 21st century? Although we know and intuitively understand what simplicity is, we need new language to define it and new behaviors to reclaim it in the digitized world. The Simplicity Principle hinges on putting human-focused psychology and cognitive limits at the center of even the most digital and scaled-up of enterprises. This means that we have to recognize and honor that although machines may be limitless in their capabilities, humans are not.
Humans need boundaries as much as they need sleep. Humans need meaning and connection, and they need these things — as working people or consumers of business products or leaders of businesses themselves — as much they need convenience, speed, or scale. This is why millennials are driving the change toward more purpose-driven corporations, because they want two simple things: the mobility offered by technology and values they can relate to. And it is why the more we understand the work of psychologists and neuroscientists, the more clearly we understand that we simply cannot go on overloading people with systems and structures that are complex and anti-human.
The work of social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, for example, shows how the human brain’s default structure — what the brain does when it is not trying to think — is to evaluate love and human connections because of the need to strengthen social bonds, which is one reason that technology overload, which limits our downtime, can disorient, confound, and distract us. Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine, estimates that the cost of this distraction (pdf) is literally 23 minutes and 15 seconds — the time it takes a human brain to refocus after being online and task switching.
It is now increasingly common to see advice on how to develop coping mechanisms against the tide of what I call infobesity: the 24/7 world of data overload. Even tech founders, who built the monster of “always-on” culture, are seeking ways to limit the use of connected devices and are developing “techlash” strategies to disconnect.
Simplicity is a worthwhile goal, and not surprisingly, it also sells. In politics, “Make America Great Again,” “Get Brexit Done,” and now “Wash Your Hands, Stay at Home” to help fight COVID-19 are prime examples of how simple messages galvanize public behavior (to get votes for the first two, and ensure social distancing for the third). And there are many more in culture and commerce: I would suggest that the simple hook of Ed Sheeran’s song “The Shape of You” helped make it Spotify’s most streamed song of all time. Siegle + Gale, a strategy firm whose tagline is “Simple is smart,” publishes an annual World’s Simplest Brands index, which draws on interviews with 15,000 people across nine countries. Its data reveals that 64 percent of people are more likely to recommend a brand that delivers simple experiences. In 2019, Netflix, Google, and Aldi got the top accolades.
A success story of simplicity I particularly like is that of the Finnish customer satisfaction startup HappyOrNot, which introduced the simple set of childish emoticon buttons (red for angry, green for happy) that you now see at most airports and many public buildings around the world to allow customers to give feedback on experiences such as trips to the bathroom and going through security checks.
Many successful products keep their complicated back end well away from the simplicity served up at the front. London-based Sanjay Nazerali, global chief strategy officer at dentsu X, a fast-growing advertising agency headquartered in Japan, told me: “I talk about simplicity every day with clients. We put simplicity center stage, because the chaos of data and technology — it was designed to make everything simple, but it has taken a deep dive into complexity instead.” His antidote? “To simplify our language and keep the focus human.” So instead of referring to data APIs (application program interfaces) or tech stacks, Nazerali and his team focus on language people will understand: They want to make sure people can understand what the technology can do for them. This is a simple and highly effective flip in emphasis away from the technology to the person.
Another simplicity leader is Rahul Bhalla, chief executive officer of the India-based Internet of Things (IoT) firm Zenatix, whose clients include Jubilant FoodWorks, which operates outlets for Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin’ Donuts in India. Zenatix designed and implemented the IoT solutions at more than 800 Domino’s Pizza outlets in 200 cities in India, automating and centrally managing all the operations of physical assets such as air conditioning, lighting, exhausts, and neon signs. Additionally, the company oversees the automatic monitoring of the temperature in cold rooms and chillers for food safety, and raises alarms if temperatures go out of range.
This is all complex stuff. But Bhalla told me that for his company, “Simplicity is at the heart of our IoT strategy. We don’t design for complexity — that’s the old way. Staff can always override any system action with the simple touch of a physical button to restore operations to the original state. This ensures the system never causes inconvenience in situations which cannot be anticipated by technology.”
Thinking through design and practice are practical steps leaders can take to develop the Simplicity Principle inside an organization. It also helps to signal simplicity from the highest level, as both Nazerali and Bhalla have done. Another example of a leader who visibly embraces simplicity is Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chair of Indian conglomerate Tata Sons, who put it at the top of his agenda, as he told s+b when he was CEO of the company. “Simplification is a priority. It is not limited to operational processes; it encompasses everything,” he said. For Tata, that meant simplifying the structure of the company into business clusters to reduce the number of entities it operated around the world.
The Simplicity Principle is both theory (we crave and need simplicity) and practice (we have to work at it). That’s where the numbers and the shape of the hexagon come in.
The perfect number
Using numbers is not new in management theory. Most memorable management mantras or theories have a number associated with them, in part because management theories themselves are a quest for simplicity, and numbering helps. Take the number four. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s iconic The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1909 and still regarded as the bible of efficiency, lists four priorities. Peter F. Drucker and Abraham Maslow went for five, as in The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask about Your Organization and the five levels in the hierarchy of needs, respectively. In psychology, there are five core personal traits referred to with the acronym OCEAN: openness to experience, conscientiousness,extroversion/introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
But I chose six for two key reasons. First, it falls within the number of things we can keep in our working memories. This was identified in the 1950s by psychologist George Miller as seven. (In fact, seven is a very popular go-to number in management and business. Stephen J. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold 25 million copies in 40 countries, and the International Organization for Standardization lists seven quality management principles. My personal productivity hack is to mark the beginning of my “seventh day rest,” or Sabbath, on a Friday night, when I begin a 24-hour techno-Shabbat to signal the end of the working week and a day free from data devices.)
The second reason to use six as a touchstone for simplicity is that in mathematics, it is the “perfect” number. In ancient Greece, 2,400 years ago, the “father of geometry,” Euclid of Alexandria, identified six as perfect, as did Pythagoras, because of the dividing integers: Six divides into one, two, and three, and when added up, these three numbers equal six. In Euclid’s Elements, Book IX, he said of the first and smallest “perfect” number: “If as many numbers as we please beginning from a unit  be set out continuously in double proportion, until the sum of all becomes a prime, and if the sum multiplied into the last make some number, the product will be perfect.” It is the symmetry of six that lends itself so, well, perfectly to being an organizing number. And I’m not the first to be fascinated by the power of six to help in business: The Six Sigma manufacturing process is one example, and another is the “six ways to make people like you” idea in one of the best-selling business books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
I chose six because not only does it fall within the working memory limit of seven, and not only is it perfect, mathematically speaking, but it is also highly symbolic in nature, science, and culture. In China, six is considered a lucky number because it represents flow and wealth. Sports loves six, in cricket (balls in an over), tennis (games that must be won in a set), and volleyball (player positions). In the world’s most popular sport, soccer, the perfect aerodynamic ball is made up of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons.
We place faith in the number six too, for example, the six items on the Jewish seder plate for the Passover celebrations or the six articles of faith in Islam; we say we bury our dead “six feet under.”
We divide the animal world into six kingdoms. All insects, of course, have six legs. And the insect that is the poster species for simplicity in a complex world is the humble honeybee, which lives and works in the same place — the hive, filled with hexagon-shaped honeycombs.
In nature, the hexagon is one of the most resilient (pdf) and space-efficient shapes. The planet Saturn, sixth from the sun, features a strange cloud pattern known as “Saturn’s hexagon,” made up of carbon atoms. Carbon is one of the most abundant and vital of all elements, key to such materials as super-light graphite, which is 200 times stronger than steel and used in items as diverse as manufacturing batteries and tennis racquets. The snowflake, symbol of all that is individual, is made up of hexagon ice crystals. But most of all, it is the hive, home to what is sometimes called the “superorganism,” the honeybee colony, that resonates with us. Bees build honeycombs, made up of many six-sided waxy cells. In 2019, bees were declared by the Earthwatch Institute to be the most important species on the earth, not least because of their ability to pollinate.
Having identified our guides to simplicity, what lessons for leaders can be found in the six-sided honeycomb and the six-legged honeybee? Bees are, like us, a highly organized social species. They have complex communications systems (their antennae and their well-known “waggle dance”) and live in large communities, rather like corporations: tens of thousands of connected individuals that operate single, delineated roles. They also belong very firmly to a community that builds, nurtures, protects, creates, and forages. They organize in something of a honeybee democracy. Like us, they need to sleep and rest; like us, they get stressed. And like them, thanks to the smartphone and the “always-on” era, we tend to live and work in the same place, too. How do they succeed where we sometimes fail? Bees set boundaries and adapt. For instance, they have fixed roles and responsibilities, ranging from the forager to the nurse bee, but they always come together when a new hive needs to be built.
Obviously, this is a simple analysis of a complex operation. But that is the point. The goal of identifying the number six and the properties of the hexagon is to give people tools and a visual guide to structure a path from complexity to simplicity. The ultimate goal is to improve well-being and enable better strategic thinking. I call the management practice of this journey hexagon action, and it encourages leaders to prioritize using the following phrases that total six words: “Keep it simple” and “learn from nature.”
The KISS and the CAT
Within a company, the decision to uncouple from complexity has to be conscious, purposeful, and, as mentioned above, led from the top through every level of an organization. You can, like Edward de Bono, create a color-coded “six thinking hats” approach (he gave colors to different kinds of behavior, such as white for “emotional” and yellow for “sunny”). Or you can prioritize working with six or fewer things at any given time: No more than six teams; teams made up of six or fewer people; looking ahead six months in six territories to pilot a project. You can embrace the idea of cognitive limits: If you give people too much to do in too complex a way, they tune out and lose out.
The goal of identifying the number six and the hexagon is to give people tools and a visual guide to structure a path from complexity to simplicity. The ultimate goal is to improve well-being.
Living by KISS means making a commitment to pursuing clarity and a commitment to avoiding decision fatigue, in which too much choice limits and inhibits people. Barack Obama famously did this by avoiding the necessity of making trivial decisions, such as which suit to wear. He had only two choices, a blue suit or a gray suit. Arianna Huffington goes further on decision fatigue by extolling the virtues of declaring “task bankruptcy.” In her book Thrive, she wrote, “It was very liberating to realize I could ‘complete’ a project by simply dropping it from my to-do list.” (Full disclosure: I am an editor-at-large of her well-being–based behavior-change platform Thrive Global, which focuses on practical ways to reduce stress and complexity.)
Complexity is obvious when you look for it — for example, in Boeing’s 737 Max 8 design, the 500 percent increase in regulation in 25 years within the U.K. pensions industry, or the space shuttle Challenger disaster, which was preceded by warnings that were ignored because they were presented on a PowerPoint slide that has since become notorious for being so dense. Simplicity, however, is often there, hiding in plain sight. It’s not just companies such as Zentatix, dentsu X, and Tata Sons that exemplify it. Apple remains an almost perfect example of a company committed to simple and functional design, despite the back end of its actual product being fiendishly complex. As Philip Davies, a president of Siegle + Gale, told me: “Simplicity is the intersection between clarity and surprise.” This recognizes that simplicity sits neatly on a spectrum ranging from chaos and complication, all the way through to something too simplistic, and is the balancing corrective. Yes, you can have multiple product ranges, with many different iterations and requirements for design, software, manufacturing, sales, service, and so on, and yet at all times the Simplicity Principle allows you to choose what works in the here and now.
This clarity you get when you simplify things is both wonderful and often surprising. On a very practical level, I advise clients suffering from what I call the CAT syndrome: They are experiencing complexity, anxiety, and (too little) time in trying to find this intersection of simplicity and functionality. They are hampered by indecision and overwhelmed by having too much connection in their lives across multiple devices, platforms, time zones, and time frames. They feel that the decisions they make are not necessarily the right ones. For example, the head of a multinational, multi-stakeholder agency was constantly being buffeted by complex and overly layered communications. There were documents on shared drives, incoming calendar alerts, and physical paperwork. The more complex the systems around him, the less he felt he could do. Once we had applied hexagon thinking to the situation, he made a couple of key decisions. First, he would create a three-strikes rule (or half a hexagon) for planning: If a meeting could not be scheduled and fixed within three attempts, it was canceled. And second, he imposed a “six-fix rule”: never have more than six people involved in an email trail, conference call, or meeting. This immediately signaled focus and clarity as well as a desire to improve decision making and cut down on complexity. The client is happier, and my impression is that his office is more functional.
In other words, this client swapped his CAT — a work life of complexity, anxiety, and time poverty — for a KISS: keep it simple, sweetie. (It was poet and writer Maya Angelou who told me to replace stupid with sweetie, and she was wise: You can always be kind and compassionate.) This marks a shift of both attitude and way of working. People who adopt these principles think and behave in a more agile and lean way (to borrow from other management disciplines). They have a lighter touch. They do not feel so burdened. People who live this way follow six fundamental principles.
1. They have boundaries. They know limits, and they observe them. Six doesn’t have to be their literal guiding number, but they know that going much beyond the proven cognitive load of working memory and attention should be avoided. They don’t zigzag between digital devices and complicated meetings without planning a buffer zone — of time or a different activity — between the two, for instance.
2. They know how to reset and rest as well as how to be “always on.” They trust that simplicity will allow them to accomplish more, differently, not less. This is linked to an understanding of the value of nature, and how calming nature can be. But it also recognizes that in individuals and in workforces, being always on is bound to lead to failure.
3. KISS leaders treat their schedules like their bodies. They control what goes in the schedule, every bit as much as they look to what food and drink they consume. They know when to stop, often choosing to create daily time blocks in which they do only email, or serious work requiring no Internet, and possibly using just pen and paper.
4. They recognize and accept the human scale, the human dimension, and the neuroscientific research about human cognitive load and how it affects every worker and customer in their organization. They balance technological speed and scale against that reality. They talk less about data and databases and more about people and “people bases.” In other words, they ask every person and every team what they believe they can do, with or without technology, rather than assuming that tech is best — even if it is. They place the human at the center of work execution.
5. They apply the hexagon, in what I call hexagon action, when they model their teams and projects, based on geometry and the science of shape, networks, efficiency, and pattern. What does a visual interpretation of an action plan look like if it’s based on a number with a set quantity of sides and angles? The hexagon works far better in this context than overlapping circles, the more typical shapes used in boardroom PowerPoints. Why? Because giving people visual structures and boundaries is essential to making management theory and practice real, and because action, not theory, is the operative word here.
6. They regard their organizations as the superorganisms they are. An organization is full of individual and collective talent, insight, and wisdom, people all wanting to serve and to share, in myriad ways, just like the highly productive honeybees. The leader who is a hexagon thinker, who applies the hexagon structure to simplifying complexity, embraces what really matters: how to organize time, networks, and knowledge flows within an organization to bring clarity; how to reset thinking and embrace well-being agendas, the individuality of teams, and purpose. These leaders apply simplicity, with form and function rooted in science and neuroscience, to working practice, product design, and departments including IT and HR. They always, always, always keep it simple, sweetie, because that works best for people.
How to simplify the complex will be a constant challenge unless we consciously change the way we think and act. As Steve Jobs said, “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.”
- Julia Hobsbawm is a writer and entrepreneur. She is honorary visiting professor in workplace social health at the Cass Business School, City, University of London.
- This essay is adapted from Julia Hobsbawm’s The Simplicity Principle: Six Steps Towards Clarity in a Complex World (Kogan Page, 2020).