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Einstein, simplicity, and focusing on what really matters

‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ Albert Einstein

A not insignificant part of Einstein’s brilliance came from his ability to focus on the essential principles and information that sat at the heart of complex scenarios. When considering difficult or complicated new ideas, instead of getting lost in the noise of complexity like many of us are, he was able to effectively sift the essential from the non-essential.

I hadn’t realised (until reading this Farnam Street post based on John Archibald Wheeler’s biographical memoir of Einstein) that rather than being born with this ability, this was a skill that Einstein cultivated, notably during his seven years working at the Swiss patent office.

Whilst there, to deal with the many applications arriving each day, his boss charged him with explaining briefly (in a single sentence if possible) why a device was going to work or why it wouldn’t work. As Einstein himself wrote:

“I soon learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.”

This was a skill that Einstein learned and practiced, and it became invaluable to him in being able to understand and articulate first principles in complex ideas.

This ability to zoom in on essential information is a critical leadership skill in the modern organisation. Thanks in no small part to digital platforms and technologies we are all faced with a deluge of opinions and information on a daily basis. Our desire to understand often leads us to consume ever larger volumes of information rather than taking the time to deliberately concentrate on what really matters. And yet knowing what to focus on, and separating signal from noise is often very difficult.

Part of the answer to this conundrum lies in spending the time to truly understand the challenge that we are facing or the problem that we are solving. Another famous quote often attributed to Einstein (although there is some debate about whether he actually said it) is: ‘If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and five minutes finding the solution’. The point being that good problem definition is key to developing a good strategy. Articulating that strategy with clarity helps define the courses of action and also what not to do – after all, strategy is about choices.

Another part of this lies with understanding the fundamental drivers of success or a situation. Shane Parrish gives the example of how smart investors focus on a small number of key variables that really matter and ignore the rest. Shane also gives the example of inversion (or ‘thinking backwards’) techniques that enables us to appreciate the things to avoid doing alongside the things we can action to achieve our goals. Where thinking forwards may involve considering the outcome that you desire and then thinking through all the things that you can do to bring about that outcome, using inversion means also considering all the things that can get in the way of accomplishing the goal and what needs to be avoided or changed (for example by thinking about what will cause the opposite outcome of what’s desired).

This can help you uncover hidden beliefs that may be toxic or a hinderance in some way, and it can help you form a more robust view on what the best strategy is. One example Shane gives – tasked with improving levels of innovation in your company you can ‘think forwards’ by looking at all the things that can foster innovation, but also invert the problem by considering all the things that would discourage innovation.

I think one of the other challenges here is how to focus on the essentials without missing out on potential breakthrough ideas that may come from non-obvious sources of inspiration (something I also believe to be of great potential value, as demonstrated by one of my favourite examples of lateral thinking and inspiration). And I think a 70, 20, 10 approach can be useful here. This model originated in learning and development and relates to the idea that 70% of learning comes from real-life and on-the-job problem-solving and experiences, 20% comes from feedback and working with role models, and 10% from more formal training.

I’ve written before about 70, 20,10 models in the context of innovation, based on Eric Schmidt’s idea whilst at Google which advocated that employees should spend most of their time (say 70%) dedicated to core business tasks, some of their time (say 20%) on projects related to the core business, and a small amount of time (say 10%) dedicated to projects unrelated to the core business. This allows staff to stay focused on the job at hand whilst also facilitating different thinking and new inputs. Similarly 70, 20,10 enables a focus on the core essentials whilst also allowing for exploration in adjacencies and completely new ideas or inputs.

Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J. Modified with Photoshop by PM_Poon and later by Dantadd., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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