I once learned a valuable lesson in a hotel lobby bar in Shanghai while sharing a bottle of good old American Johnny Walker with a half dozen other professors. We were pontificating over life and business and laboring over where to go for dinner. All sorts of suggestions were being tossed in and mulled over when one fellow drinker, abruptly, started speaking in Spanish. He translated his remarks to, “Don’t look for five legs on a cat.” An old South American saying cautions against overcomplicating matters. Unfortunately, his advice did not help the very opinionated professors embrace simplicity in this particular situation. However, I embrace it as great advice for entrepreneurs.
Unlike deciding which restaurant to go to for dinner, business challenges are often not as easily solved. In reality, options are not conveniently listed, insights are not nicely presented in charts and graphs, and solutions are not always obvious. The startup world, like life, is messy, indeterministic and filled with unpredictability. Often, entrepreneurs are faced with less-than-clear choices and unknown consequences to every decision.
To compete, entrepreneurs have to turn their ideas into business outcomes and encounter complex situations. To win, they must be able to make reasonably good decisions consistently.
As a startup, at the heart of every victory lies the timely fusion of cohesive strategy and effective execution: a marriage that leads to movement, growth and progress. At the epicenter of progress is the intellectual ability to find the “right problems.” And, at the core of successful problem solving and innovation are good decisions made and acted upon at the right time.
When problems appear more and more difficult, decisions become more grueling and solutions less clear and attainable. If you are making your problems more complicated than they need to be, you are searching for the “fifth leg on a cat,” so to speak, and are placing your startup’s victory at risk.
At the two ends of the problem-solving scale are the “tracers” and the “reinventors.” The tracers find the solution to every problem through best practices and reduplication. They prefer to leave innovation to others and seek the safety of the known, or the perceived to be known, methods. The reinventors, on the other hand, are fascinated by the concept of discovering a new solution every time.
Successful entrepreneurs live somewhere in between the two. They aim not to make life more complicated by uselessly reinventing the wheel every time simply because it is exciting. They also do not fall back on old solutions merely because they’ve worked before and won’t ignore them because they did.
Good entrepreneurs constantly look to simplify the problem definitions, simplify decisions and simplify solutions.
Let’s be clear: Simplification is not about the elimination of facts or possibilities, and it is not about being a “big picture” person or ignoring details. Simplification is the ability to run facts, assumptions and desires against competitive realities and our capabilities to drive clarity. Simplicity requires clarity of thought. This clarity will define, as entrepreneurs, who you are and who you are not, what you believe or don’t have faith in, what you do or avoid, and ultimately, how you shape your future.
When your unique entrepreneurial philosophy is well shaped, it infuses thoughtfulness and speed into your work. It turns ambiguity into clarity. The illusion of the fifth leg on the cat (making things more complicated than they really are) can be erased by the clarity of your principals and priorities, which will empower you to simplify problems, decisions and solutions.
To avoid overcomplicating, you must:
- First, always build/refine your entrepreneurial philosophy: Your unique entrepreneurial framework and principals define who you are and what your priorities are.
- Second, create awareness and avoid traps: We all tend to either oversimplify situations or enter into the “analysis paralysis zone.” Five-legged cats are tricky and can inject themselves into every problem – don’t let them!
- Third, when faced with confounding problems: Ask yourself a simple question: “Do I see five legs on this cat?”
- Lastly, trust your ability: To create clarity and make both problems and solutions simple.
Clarity of thought, as Luc De Clapiers, the French writer, puts it, is the counterbalance of profound thoughts, allowing difficult challenges to be quickly met with insightful solutions. Here is an intelligent idea: a cat has four legs. This fact is obvious and clear. Don’t try to find a fifth leg. When you do, you will introduce unnecessary complications and confusion into the planning and execution process, which will only slow the growth of your business.
Great thinkers have always emphasized the great power of simplicity. Be courageous in your business endeavors and seek clarity, always.