Simplicity is good for business

In 1418, a competition was announced in Florence, Italy.  The city’s magnificent cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, had been under construction for more than a hundred years by then.  Its original design called for a grand dome to be built.  The dome was supposed to be an octagonal shape, higher and wider than any that had ever been built, with no external buttresses to keep it from spreading and falling under its own weight. For over a century, no one knew how to build it.

Opera del Duomo, the office in charge of the cathedral, asked artisans, carpenters and masons from all over Italy to submit proposals for the grand dome. After very careful evaluation, Filippo Brunelleschi’s design proposal was by far the best. Yet he was a trained goldsmith, not a known architect. The Opera was concerned about granting such a significant project to an unknown architect, so they asked Brunelleschi to give a detailed explanation of his proposal.

Brunelleschi suggested to the members of the Opera that whoever could make an egg stand on a flat piece of marble should win the commission. When all the other contestants failed the test, Filippo simply cracked the egg on the bottom and then stood it upright. When his rivals protested that they might have done the same, Filippo retorted that they would know how to build the dome, too, if only they knew his plan. So the commission to build the dome went to Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi’s solutions were ingenious. To build this grand dome without external buttress, he created an architecture illusion by building a double shell of the dome. He embedded iron chains within the inner dome to keep the dome from spreading and falling under its weight.

It took 14 years to construct the dome, which also consumed over 4 million bricks. When it was completed, the dome is 375 feet high and 144 ft wide. It is higher and wider than any dome that has ever been built. To put it into perspective, Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s, is almost ten feet narrower. The dome of the Capitol in Washington D.C. is less than two-thirds the size of Brunelleschi’s dome.

Brunelleschi was able to build this architectural masterpiece because he was able to come up with an ingenious yet incredibly simple solution. As another great Florentine artist Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Today, we live in an increasingly complex world. It seems that no solution is a good solution unless it is a complicated one. It seems no law is a good law unless it is written in hundreds and thousands of pages. It seems that we cannot get anything done unless we spend hours in meetings.

Nancy Koehn, a professor from the Harvard Business School, estimates that there will be 11 million meetings taking place just today. The truth is, simplicity is much more difficult to achieve than complexity. You want to grow your business, so how about delivering what you have promised to your clients? If you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, how about try to strive for simplicity? If you can make an egg stand, you probably can move mountains, too!

Categories: Management & Leadership