Jan 12, 2023 - Economy

Axios Finish Line: The simplicity doctrine

Illustration of three pencils drawing their way through a maze, with one pencil going straight through the center

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

Occam's razor teaches us that the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

  • Here's the new Axios' Razor: The simplest way of doing things is usually the right one.

Why it matters: Too many people too often lard up ideas, processes, teams or companies with needless complexity. Simplicity, by contrast, greases velocity, productivity and profitability.

This is my big obsession heading into 2023, as Axios grows from 500 people to 1,000+ in the coming years: How can we cut away complexity at every level, in every area, to make everything we do simple, fast, intuitive for staff — and readers?

  • This fights against the human habit of keeping things once we secure them.
  • At work, that habit is very hard to break.

Think of it this way: Every new person needs to do something and usually wants to add their own special something to it. Each new something breeds new complexities, merely by existing.

  • Once something is spawned, it's rarely killed. Or even revisited. Killing things is often harder than creating them — that something has an owner and constituencies. It's easier to justify keeping it than killing it.
  • That's why everything big becomes bureaucratic. (It's also why public policy is so hard to fix.)
  • And it's why startups lose their juice.

Everyone should do a simplicity audit of their life and work. And given the speed of change, do it every six months.

  • Do you really need this — or use this often enough to justify it?
  • Is there a faster, easier way to do things?

Some random ways we think about simplicity:

  1. More is often less. There's an inverse relationship between the number of people involved and the quality/velocity of products. Most managers think the opposite: The instinct is to think about adding to fix things, instead of eliminating things you have.
  2. Simplicity works everywhere. One of the smartest things we did six years ago was adopt a principle we call "elegant efficiency" for all our visual & product designs. Readers yearn for clarity — so you need hard guardrails to block complexity. The same with our Smart Brevity™ writing architecture. It's all about making life simpler and more intuitive.
  3. A simplicity czar. If I were designing the company from scratch, I'd have a CSO — chief simplicity officer — whose job was to make sure everything we did was constantly reviewed for ease and essentialism. This mandate falls on Axios' new head of operations. But everyone needs this role in title or focus.
  4. Back to basics. Constantly revisiting what your team or consumers need is the key. Would this exist if we started from scratch today? If no, kill it — or simplify it.
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