New book by MIT Sloan lecturer offers “simple rules” to thrive in a complex world

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 21, 2015 – We face the challenge of managing complexity every day. From intricate diets and lengthy cell phone contracts to being inundated with work emails, an important question is whether complex problems need complex solutions. In a new book, SIMPLE RULES: How to Thrive in a Complex World, MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer Donald Sull maintains that complexity is not the answer.

“Fighting complexity is an ongoing battle that can wear us down,” writes Sull, with coauthor Prof. Kathleen M. Eisenhardt of Stanford University. “Simple rules can be a powerful weapon in this fight.”

Drawing on more than a decade of research, Sull and Eisenhardt explain that by developing a few simple yet effective rules, you can achieve even the most complicated personal and professional objectives.

The authors note that simple rules share four common traits:

  • They are limited to just a handful. Capping the number of rules makes them easy to remember and keeps a focus on what matters most. The authors cite Zipcar’s revolutionary car-sharing model as an example. The company gives customers simple rules: report damage, keep cars clean, no smoking, fill up with gas, return on time, and keep pets in carriers.
  • They are tailored to the person or organization using them. College athletes and middle-aged dieters may both use simple rules to decide what to eat, but their rules will be very different.
  • They apply to a well-defined activity or decision. For instance, consider the difference in asking how you can prioritize patients for care in an emergency room versus how you can improve healthcare.
  • They provide clear guidance without being overly prescriptive. The authors refer to Michael Pollan’s advice, “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly plants,” as an example of giving simple rules that leave room to exercise creativity and pursue unanticipated opportunities.

Sull and Eisenhardt give many diverse examples in the book of success stories attributed to simple rules. “Bees use them to find a nest, Tina Fey to produce a comedy show, burglars to choose a house to rob, and 15th century Jesuits to explore different missions. Simple rules provide the perfect balance of consistency and flexibility for creative tasks, which explains why Monet used them for painting, the White Stripes for recording in the studio, and Elmore Leonard when writing nearly 50 novels,” says Sull.


SIMPLE RULES is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For more information on the book, please visit: http://www.hmhco.com/shop/books/Simple-Rules/9780544409903

Donald Sull is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan who focuses on managing in turbulent markets. He has published several other books, including The Upside of Turbulence and Made in China. For more information on Sull, please visit:http://mitsloan.mit.edu/faculty/detail.php?in_spseqno=58805

The MIT Sloan School of Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at mitsloan.mit.edu.