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Reduce complexity


   The Simplicity Cycle

The Simplicity Cycle equips users with a visual vocabulary for discussing complexity and simplicity in a design. The framework aids with assessing and expressing the value of adding or removing design elements.

Session Length: 60+ minutes Group Size: 6+ people Prep Time: 30+ minutes


Introduce this tool in the early phase of a project and use it throughout the development effort. It is applicable to a broad range of activities, from writing code to designing business processes and creating presentations.


The Simplicity Cycle:

  • Helps users chart a development path and identify which types of tools to use at each phase.
  • Helps frame the problem and establish the “definition of done.”
  • Boosts creativity and mental adaptability as the team explores ideas using different mental constructs and metaphors.
  • The visual framework makes it easier for the whole team to express ideas and for all voices to be heard.
  • Increases focus on the program’s actual objectives.
  • Accelerates understanding and improves communication within the team by providing a visual/kinetic vocabulary to use when assessing and discussing complexity.
  • Helps the team maintain awareness of different design phases and the tools to be used in each phase.


STEP 1: Using the Simplicity Cycle framework diagram, identify your project’s location on one of the four numbered points listed below. This assessment is typically based on recent actions and tools. (For example, when the team has been adding a lot of features to the system, the project is probably near the Shift or Stop point).

START: The design is simple, basic, immature, and delivers little value. The best move involves adding strategies that increase complexity (e.g., Brainstorming, Prototyping).

SHIFT: The design has accumulated a critical mass of complexity and now delivers significant value. The best move is to adopt reductive strategies that decrease complexity (e.g., Trimming, Stormdraining).

STOP: The design has accumulated too much complexity, which overwhelms value. The best move is to pause, then use reductive tools to significantly reduce complexity.

SHIP: The design is elegant: simple and effective, providing maximum value. Declare it complete and send it out into the world!

The yellow arrow indicates time pushing things in the direction of decreased goodness, as yesterday’s breakthroughs become tomorrow’s commodities. This brings us back to the start point, where the cycle starts again.

STEP 2: Depending on the project’s current location, identify the desired next location. Make a list of action steps and strategies that can help move the project in that direction.

The Simplicity Cycle |Worksheet

Download this tool to print out and start using with your team. Each download includes a tool description and if applicable, a template and example.