Ken Segall on the simplicity of success
Success is simplicity itself, according to former Apple creative director Ken Segall.
- Steve Jobs valued simplicity so much he “beat people over the head with it”.
- Simplicity is a lens through which you look at business problems – and solutions.
- The rise of Donald Trump is a great example of the power of simplicity - and of the dark side of simplicity.
Steve Jobs valued simplicity so much he “beat people over the head with it”, says former Apple creative director Ken Segall.
“He [Jobs] had that brutal side – this is the way we want to work and I won’t tolerate any other way of working. But the result was he created this place where everyone had absolute clarity about what they were supposed to do and it made work a whole lot easier,” Segall says.
When Jobs resumed control of Apple in 1997, after an 11-year absence from the company he co-founded, it was near bankruptcy. Segall helped rebuild the business by turning Jobs’ “my way” approach into the i-way – coining the iconic name iMac.
The idea has since become an Apple naming convention applied to the iPhone, iPad, iPod and iTunes.
Segall also oversaw the development of the “think different” campaign, a phrase he describes as a great unifier for the struggling company.
“A great line like that is a rallying cry and a way to focus on what needs to be developed and how it will be promoted.
“When you have a line that so perfectly captures the essence of your company it becomes sort of a guideline. Everything you do is held up to that. If it doesn’t reinforce that then you can’t do it. It galvanised everybody and focused everybody on one message.”
Simple, eh? Not really.
“Simplicity is an indicator of intelligence and sophistication,” says Segall. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of devotion to make something simple and doing that is a mark of great intelligence.”
Jobs could do it. In fact, he loved to simplify things.
“People like Steve Jobs have this burnt into their brains,” Segall chuckles. “When he came into Apple he reorganised the company in a simple way, getting rid of all the committees and streamlining the operation and having people not report to multiple levels. Everything was simpler. People understood what their job was.”
In 1997 Jobs needed single mindedness and determination in order to succeed. Apple was losing money and had become, Segall politely puts it, “mediocre”. Ten years later Apple was profitable, growing and one of the dominant forces in computer design and software on the planet.
Segall documented this journey in his book Insanely Simple. He has just released a follow up, Think Simple, for which he interviewed CEOs who have simplified their businesses for success. Interviewees included Westpac Australia CEO Brian Hartzer, Jerry Greenfield from US ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, and former senior executives at Apple.
Simplicity is a lens through which you look at business problems – and solutions, he says.
In 1997 Jobs needed single mindedness and determination in order to succeed.
“You can find simpler ways to do almost anything, whether it’s product design, website design, advertising or corporate structure. There is a commonality in the thinking that drives all of those things. Actually, when I set out to write that first book I didn’t plan on it being a business book,” Segall says.
“Between you and me, and whoever might read this, it really was more about a general philosophy that you could live or work by. But when you get involved with publishers they say ‘No, no, no, you need a genre. So your genre is business’ – because it was based around my experience with Apple and Steve Jobs."
Segall says the principles of simplicity are applicable in many parts of life.
“I’m actually a very good example of that because until very recently I lived in a house and had tons of stuff and I used to get very, very frustrated. I have totally renewed my life. I now live a simple life in an apartment. I tried to whittle down rooms full of things into two boxes. And I am so much happier now.”
Simplifying his lifestyle has made Segall feel more in control, he says.
“Everything is so clear. It is very empowering. When you clarify things, when you remove complexity, then what is left is simplicity. And it is easier to see where you are, where you are going and what you need to do to get there.”
Simplicity can also be applied – to a degree – to personal relationships.
“I don’t want to reduce personal relationships into business relationships – the nature of personal relationships is that they are probably a lot more complex, having to do with emotions, but again certain principles do apply. I think a lot of relationships would have been saved if things had not got so complicated for people.”
The point, in business or your personal life, he says, is not to take simplicity for granted. “You have to put some work into it.”
Segall is proud of his “think different” campaign and the transformative impact it had – driven by Jobs, he hastens to add – at Apple. But a success so simple can be hard to recognise.
“With ‘think different’ we were tasked with coming up with something to tell the world that Apple was alive and well when Steve Jobs came back. It was to tell the world what Apple was all about because there had been 11 years of mediocrity before that.
“The beauty of ‘think different’ was it really described the company back to its inception in Steve’s father’s garage making computers. It really struck a chord with Steve. He thought it was a great way to capture the spirit of the company.”
But it didn’t catch on right away. “I don’t think anyone ever says ‘that’s it’ and leaps out of their chair and is totally satisfied with it. Until you live with something for a while you don’t realise how powerful it is. You never quite know whether you have it. There’s an emotional side to it and it is something that grows over time.”
The business of simplicity
There is no single way to apply the concept of simplicity successfully to business, Segall says. But in interviewing CEOs he has found some commonalities to their experiences.
“I always start with my standard disclaimer: the nature of some businesses is such that you are not going to suddenly be able to make things simple. I’ve talked to certain companies that literally make over 100,000 products. They are not going to wake up one morning and say ‘hey, let’s be like Apple and make six products’.
“It is a matter of looking at the specifics of an industry. The simplicity may not be in what the customers see, it may be in the company itself and the way the organisation is arranged, or the processes.”
A good way to start is to try to see your organisation through fresh eyes.
“Pretend you don’t work there. Step outside your company and look at it. That’s what Steve Jobs was good at.”
If you can make the people who work for a company feel that their roles are clear and their responsibilities are clear, which is a very powerful form of simplicity, they will be more fulfilled in their work and probably stay with the company longer, he says.
And putting yourself in the shoes of your customers is another useful exercise.
"Step outside your company and look at it. That’s what Steve Jobs was good at."
“Is the [customer] experience so great that you would tell someone about it? Wow, these guys are great? When something is truly simple and wonderful people tend to fall in love with it and share it with friends, family and colleagues. It’s about trying to not merely exist, it’s trying to delight people.”
And finally, you have to enable a culture of simplicity to thrive.
“In a lot of companies, the culture is such that this is not the way people think. In fact, they are encouraged to do things in a complicated way. It takes a lot of work to reverse that and to make simplicity take root in a culture.”
“I think the rise of Donald Trump is a great example of the power of simplicity,” Segall says. “Unfortunately, it is also an example of the dark side of simplicity because it’s very easy to stand there and say build a wall, America first and all that kind of stuff. During the campaign he didn’t offer an explanation beyond that. He simplified his message in a fairly masterful way. It appealed to that patriotic, paranoid side of the American people.”
When simplicity starts to obscure truth, it starts to move to the “dark side”, Segall says.
Image credit: The Washington Post / Getty Images.
“It is a good way to get people thinking in a particular way because it is so clear. But in the wrong hands it can be a dangerous power.
“I’ve been meaning to write a blog article about this but I am afraid people will attack me. I have to be braver,” he laughs.
Segall has blogged that politicians should be held to account for the truthfulness of their statements in the same way advertisers are.
“The point of my article was that you can’t run an ad for a product that makes a claim unless that claim can be proven. “It would be nice if politicians weren’t allowed to say anything they want no matter how much of a lie it can be proven to be.”
Segall at World Business Forum
Ken Segall will be introduced by Chartered Accountants ANZ CEO Lee White FCA at the World Business Forum in Sydney (31 May-1 June). He will discuss the business insights gained when researching Think Simple. Acuity readers can receive a 10% discount on tickets to the World Business Forum by using the CAANZ10 promo code when purchasing your ticket at wbfsydney.com.
This article first appeared in the April/May issue of Acuity magazine, which can be read in full online for free here.