Leadership approaches, support and ideas from Bristol Brunel Academy

Simplicity, complexity, DNA and dark matter

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Simplicity, complexity, DNA and dark matter

It’s easier to complicate than to simplify. Simple ideas enter the brain quicker and stay there longer. (Saatchi)Steve Jobs

Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains. (Steve Jobs)

A really important principle at Brunel is the need to have and use simple systems – nothing more complicated than it needs to be. It is this simplicity that secures understanding and buy-in. Academies require consistency and a collaborative determination to improve. Dark clouds of complexity reduce consistency and hold back improvement. In this blog we investigate simplicity, how it must triumph over complexity and become part of our DNA. It is this simplicity that will enable the focus on what is important and allow us to find that Dark Matter that really makes the difference – those bright spots that generate social epidemics and trigger tipping points of improvement.


Ken Segall wrote “Insanely Simple” a great book that distils how Apple embraced simplicity to go from near death in 1997 to the most valuable company on the planet by 2011. “Given the option, any sane person will choose the simple path over one that’s more complicated – we should never underestimate the degree to which people crave this kind of clarity and respond positively to it.”  The problem is that there is a dark cloud called complexity. Complexity can be powerful and seductive, so it should never be underestimated. Why do we happen upon complex solutions? People have a natural tendency to assume problems are solved with greater complexity –ingenious solutions must be complex.

Seth Godin talks of “the inevitable decline due to clutter.” The reverse, Simplicity, is power. Siegel et al. states, “It’s never been more critical for companies to simplify – to do so requires a commitment from the top, clarity of purpose, and a ‘culture of simplicity’ that permeates the entire organisation.” (Siege and Etzkorm, “Simple”, 2013)

Siegel challenges, “can a company transform itself so that simplicity becomes part of its DNA?” This sounds like a challenge – but there is a problem – simplicity requires greater thought not less, greater analysis, wider views, stripping back to what matters and going upstream to consider the likely outcomes – what the Heath brothers would call – “Zooming out to zoom in.” In so many ways achieving simplicity is not simple – Da Vinci once said that simplicity was the ultimate sophistication.

The dark cloud of complexity definitely hung around Brunel. The Fog is clearing, and the evidence of the impact of more simplicity is having unintended (and intended) positive consequences. This is really important for us – it is gaining buy-in and enabling focus on what matters; after all people crave this kind of clarity and respond positively to it. From the timings of the day, lunchtimes, phones, curriculum, A3 pages, transition, destinations, uniform, 1-4, SEFs, Reviews, CPD to meeting structures there is increasing simplicity in our DNA – it is this that allows us to focus on our core business – to travel toward our destination undistracted and what enables greater consistency and collegiality in shifting Brunel to Outstanding.

It is this thinking that will enable us to understand the Dark Matter* (the things that Academies do, teachers do, students do that get grades) – the levers that will secure our red dots (> 100 Year 11 students to achieve their 5 ACEM). It is the simplicity now in place (the Macro) that enables us to focus on the Micro – those practices and approaches that make a difference, have leverage and get students the progress and grades they need to enrich their lives and give them a chance in their future. It is our simplicity and structure that allows us to seek Consistent tactical excellence (and) not frenetic innovation (Collins) – to focus on our bright spots, to measure them, share them and distil them to the simple approaches that achieve 80% of the difference.

“Just understand that Simplicity is more than a goal – it’s a skill. To successfully leverage its power, you need to get good at it – simplicity isn’t simple.” (Ken Segall, 2012)

Our journey to outstanding is using the leveraging impact of simplicity – realising organisational and systemic simplicity requires a depth of thought that sees through the fog of complexity – we realise this simplicity by supporting those closest to (and effected greatest by) complexity to find and lead us to simple solutions.

Dark Mattergives out no light, but it’s gravitational footprints are everywhere – it is this force that may not be written in OFSTED criteria, but is the set of approaches that successful teachers use to secure greater than expected results from students – our quest is to find, measure and concentrate this dark matter in our practice. Interestingly Dark Matter and Energy makes up >90% of the universe – I wonder if our Dark Matter practices will also have a similar impact on student performance and up-grading?

Dr Dan Nicholls

Principal – Bristol Brunel Academy


8 Sept 2013


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