Simplicity Is The Ultimate Business Sophistication

A sensible maxim attributed to Leonardo da Vinci is ‘Simplicity, is the ultimate sophistication’. Its common sense wisdom is simple sophistication itself – as befits one of history’s greatest geniuses.  And yet so often in business otherwise sensible people, are quick to complicate and add layers of confusion. If in doubt – we add a feature, build more reports and more stuff. I recently took part in one of  the excellent Splash events organised by Working Knowledge to engage students in business that was held at Weston College – and one of the things that struck me was their ability to focus on the simple. In large part I think this is because none of the students were tainted with our often misplaced love of complexity…

It Can Be Dangerous To Work Alone…

Working Knowledge is a great social enterprise that produces a series of brilliant events throughout the country designed to engage students in business and entrepreneurial thinking. The events help the talented young people who will build the enterprises of tomorrow to learn how to develop their ideas and apply basic business processes. The event is loud, energetic and fast. Over a day, teams of 4-5 students create an idea and seek advice from volunteer business advisers so they can build their business plans – which are later judged Dragon Den stylee at the end of the day. And Weston College, who hosted the event I attended, certainly feels like the kind of place that will produce a future Dyson or Branson. Art, design and technology mix together in rooms and hallways filled with cool creative stuff – and the place has a feel that is more hi tech & nimble business campus than stuffy academia. It was the sort of place I wished I could have once attended.  I spent a great day working alongside some excellent experts adding some extra business thinking to the students’ freshly minted ideas. And the coffees and the ideas flowed freely too. From music festivals to mobile phone accessories, from cafeteria payment cards to tablet computing for students – a range of concepts were presented. We discussed what consumers wanted and how things would work. We talked about branding and promotions and explored pricing, suppliers and margins. The students were smart & savvy and were confident enough to not only pitch their ideas to people they had never met before but also to quickly take on board and apply our feedback too.

A few things  – we didn’t have to advise on or encourage though. There was no lack of energy. There was no worry about failure.  And because of that, the best teams I met had a raw enthusiasm and simple approach that would put many a corporate marketing meeting to shame. They didn’t think of problems – but of what could be done and how things could work.  As Leonardo suggests – they were sophisticated because they kept things focused and simple. Of course discipline, research,  planning is always going to be a pre-requisite to any business success – but ultimately, the best things are kept simple.

Keeping It Simple Is Always The Ultimate Sophistication

Another valuable point to take away from an event like this is the reminder that you don’t have to be a crazy haired, white coated, bug-eyed scientist working from a laboratory to be creative, innovative or entrepreneurial. You don’t need an MBA or a PHD. Famously, Walt Disney did not invent animation and Steve Jobs did not invent the computer, the smart phone – or the music player. What they did, as entrepreneurs was think differently, apply a simple approach – and use their smart network of connections. Walt Disney’s radical idea: “Why are cartoons only 3 minutes long? Why don’t we make a feature-length one?”. And Steve Jobs applied his ruthless and simple design aesthetic (he was of course, famously a student of calligraphy…) – ” Why aren’t computers beautiful and simple, rather than ugly and complicated?” Good business principles still always apply. Marketing always has been – and always will be about, ‘Serving Customers Profitably’. But taking an idea and making it valuable through simplicity, is a great lesson in how to do this. As a business I was working with last week were quick to remind me – any confused message or slightest service issue, was just not acceptable to consumers, who expect all services and products to be seamless, 100% accurate – and well priced. And simple …

The day was full of ideas -which is always a good way to spend time. Creativity happens when you have the friction of ideas but you get things done through your network of connections, be it your team, your colleagues or your suppliers.  It’s always been that way, from ancient trading routes to the latest media deals. The winner of the event, with a plan to build a local music festival organised by students, had to pitch his idea by himself when the rest of the team let him down – but though he worked alone, he still had a smart understanding of collaboration.  His event strategy was based on tapping into a cost-effective supply of local student and college talent and resources to keep his costs low – and simple.  One of the principles that we reinforce in our Collaborative Edge Programme – is that ‘the ability to manage your personal network is the only career advantage you have’. It’s a skill that great executives and entrepreneurs posses and it’s what many of the impressive students at Weston had in abundance. Congratulations to all the team at Working Knowledge , Weston College and the business mentors and volunteers. Here’s to enthusiasm, focus – and here’s to simplicity…

For more information on collaboration, innovation and partnerships see Benchstone and and to find out more about the Splash events at colleges around the UK, please visit Working Knowledge

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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