When Surprisingly Simple Solutions Work

Majority of my posts echo: “many problems stem from people underestimating complexity and oversimplifying things.” Meanwhile, the opposite can hold true too. Many problems are complex, but that doesn’t mean every solution has to be. This is page is an ongoing archive of case studies and examples that colour this point.

Ivanhoe Reservoir, 2009 from National Geographic

So the other day I was applying pawpaw ointment (for dry lips), and too much came out. I’m not sure if you also use this product, but I promise you, squeezing just the right amount requires delicate motor control. The hole is just too big.

Is this bad design? From a ‘consumer’ perspective, yes. From But from a supplier’s point of view – with moral, anti-consumerist, post-capitalist decay arguments aside – it’s genius. This reminded me of the Colgate story.

How 1 mm increased toothpaste sales by 40%.

So apparently in the 1950s, Colgate sales were flat and the pressure was on to grow quickly and cost-effectively. After months of scrambling, some guy suggests increasing the diameter of the tube nozzle from 5 mm to 6 mm. This 20% length increase corresponds to a 44% area increase.  Consumers squirted out more without even noticing, and sales jumped by 40%. 


More case studies

When food is more important. In 2005, a US army major analysed videotapes of recent riots in Kufa, 150km south of Baghdad. He noticed that crowds would gradually gather in a plaza, grow in size, food vendors would show up, someone would throw a rock, then all hell would break loose. The major made an odd request to the city’s mayor: keep food vendors out of plazas. A few weeks later, a crowd gathered again, growing in size and aggression. But at dusk the crowd got hungry. One after another, people started to leave to go eat. By 8pm, everyone was gone. This story is from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2013).

What superpowers do. Legend has it that during the space race, NASA spent millions developing a pen that would work in space. Meanwhile, the Soviets just used a pencil.

Predicting economic growth with satellite images. Many companies require data on economic activity to make many business decisions. But most governments release official GDP figures months after the quarter has elapsed. So a Japanese firm, Nowcast Inc, used satellite images of night lights to track changes in illumination intensity as a proxy for economic activity. This is particularly useful in parts of the world where data is of poor quality or unavailable. This method has been shown to be more accurate than predictions made by economists using slow traditional methods.

Fighting blue days with blue lights. With one of the highest suicide rates among OECD nations, Japan sees, on average, one suicide a day at train stations alone. Many stations don’t have preventative barricades as they are expensive. So back in 2000, 71 train stations installed blue LED lamps to induce calm among commuters. These train stations were monitored for 10 years and saw a 84% fall in suicide rates.

Fighting corruption on a budget. In 2011, anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare coordinated a campaign to pass the Jan Lokpal legislation – a national bill that would give ombudsmen the power to hold public officials at all levels accountable. He asked his fellow Indians to send him an SMS to express support for his campaign. 80,000 texts. Good, but not enough. Hazare changed tactic: he asked people to give him a missed call instead. As is the case for many developing parts of the world, many communicate through missed calls simply because they are free. Running late for a meeting? Missed call. Want to let someone know you miss the? Missed call. The result of this simple change from SMS to missed calls? One of the largest coordinated acts of protests in human history. 35 million. This story is from Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timm’s New Power (2018).

Black balls save LA (related to first image in post). The Ivanhoe Reservoir provides Los Angeles with drinking water. A drought in California saw increasing evaporation rates, and intense sunlight caused the artificially-added bacteria-killing chlorine to react with the naturally occurring bromide to produce carcinogens. Proposals to erect a giant protective structure were rejected due to cost and long construction times. Then somebody suggested covering the reservoir with millions of black plastic balls. In 2008, truckloads of these floating balls were poured into the water. The balls reduced evaporation by as much as 90%, and the shade it provided prevented the chemical reactions from occurring. 

Rather easy to impress the 11-year old me. I remember at some primary school camp, there was this activity where everyone was given a bunch of plastic drinking straws. The challenge was to assemble them into a structure and make it fly the furthest horizontal distance. One by one, we saw plane-inspired designs, dart-inspired designs, and everything in between. Then this guy threw a dense ball of knotted straws. And to everyone’s surprise, it flew past all of the designs, beating them all by an astounding margin. Most laughed. And me? I promised I would never under-estimate simple ideas ever again.


Mental modelling this concept

So sometimes, simple solutions are powerful. The key word here is sometimes.

Now consider a scale of simplicity vs effectiveness with 4 cases.

Unnecessarily over-engineered solutions are surprisingly prevalent (case 4).

  • Relying on a fragmented base of suppliers just to get the cheapest price, despite additional administration costs from managing so many suppliers far exceeds the cost savings
  • Pouring millions into building IT functionality that the company could have easily purchased off-the-shelf, at a fraction of the price and time
  • Excessively bureaucratic operating procedures in small organisation

But while there is beauty in simplicity, there is also danger.

Obviously, simple solutions don’t apply everywhere, every time (case 3). If Colgate kept increasing their toothpaste holes, it’d quickly become an internet meme. While simple worked for some, there’s many more when naive simplicity did not work. Or perhaps even back-fired. To visualise this, we can extend the vertical ‘effectiveness axis’ negatively to show case 5: simple and backfired. Oftentimes, it would be right to say a solution backfired because it was naively simple.

There are so many examples of case 5.

One of them is the Cobra Effect.

The Cobra Effect, also known as the Rat Effect in French-colonial Vietnam

Sometimes, a solution makes things worse.

Titled: When your company brings in outside consultants “to speed up the process”:

That’s the trick with mental models: it’s easy to appreciate them, but it’s unexpectedly difficult to know when and how to apply them.


Applying this concept in life and work

I won’t pretend to be a master in this but just so I don’t have to leave you dry – “figure it out yourself” – here’s some points to consider.

Simple doesn’t mean obvious. In fact, many are far from obvious. This calls for creativity.

Creativity is necessary but not sufficient. Creativity may generate many ideas for simple solutions, but it will be difficult to tell which will be effective.

(i) Design thinking is one technique that could help with coming up with original and effective solutions. I’d encourage you to search for this on YouTube and/or read the book.

(ii) Recognise the linearities in a seeming ball of complications, chaos, and complexity.

(iii) It really helps to be grounded in science and human behaviour.

In short, not every single complex problem needs a complex solution – sometimes, the simplest solutions could be the most effective.

Thanks for reading!

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