Picture of Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Mousetraps, Cake, Code, and Irreducible Simplicity

As I help people solve problems and get things done, I always find my way back to the idea of irreducible simplicity – that point of balance where a solution is as simple as it can be, yet not too simplistic.

Irreducible simplicity is the simplest a solution can be and still actually work. No wasted work. No extra stuff or steps. Just what’s needed to solve the problem, and no more. Irreducible simplicity is simplest functional form.

We live in a massively complex world. But it runs from simpler principles. It is both simple and complex at the same time.

As a result, it’s often tough to find the balance point where we’re not oversimplifying on the one hand or overcomplicating on the other. Each side has its pitfalls, a sort of Scilla and Charibdes of error. If we err with oversimplistic solutions, we often create unintended consequences, more problems than we solve. And if we err by overcomplicating, we create unnecessary confusion and paralysis.

Irreducible simplicity is the problem-solver’s happy place, that middle place where solutions are as simple as they can be and still work: right at the point where any further reduction destroys function.

Say the problem is catching mice. The irreducibly simple solution is the spring-loaded mousetrap. To catch mice, it needs six things: wooden platform, spring, wire hammer, staples, catch, and holding bar. If any of the six are missing, the trap won’t work. Another example of irreducible simplicity is ingredients for cake: butter, milk, sugar, baking powder, flour, and eggs. Miss an ingredient and there’s no cake.

Same with the Code’s five fundamental laws of self-regulation. The Code is five laws. No more, no less. If we really want to solve problems and get things done, to get unstuck and accelerate our sense of purpose, we must follow these five laws. It’s like a five-tumbler combination lock. Without five correct entries, in the correct order, it won’t unlock.

When solving problems, start thinking about irreducible simplicity. It will help you avoid the traps of oversimplication and overcomplication.

Share this post