Bob Sutton: Keep it Simple to Reduce Cognitive Load | Summary and Q&A

February 21, 2014
Stanford eCorner
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Bob Sutton: Keep it Simple to Reduce Cognitive Load

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In this video, the speaker discusses the problem of "more" and how it adds cognitive load to people. They highlight the importance of keeping things simple and avoiding unnecessary complexity. The video also mentions the concept of design for delight and the need for hierarchy and structure in growing organizations.

Questions & Answers

Q: How does cognitive load affect people's behavior?

When people are burdened with cognitive load, such as having to remember complex information, they tend to lose focus and concentration on what is important. This can lead to decision fatigue and a decreased ability to make optimal choices. In the video, it is illustrated with an experiment where participants who were assigned to memorize a seven-digit number ended up eating 50% more cake compared to those who memorized a two-digit number. This shows that cognitive load can influence behavior and consumption.

Q: How can design thinking help simplify and improve customer experiences?

Design thinking is an approach that focuses on understanding users' needs and creating solutions that meet those needs in an innovative and user-friendly way. The video mentions the "D for D" movement, which aims to bring design thinking into the customer journey. By going beyond customer expectations and delivering ease and benefits throughout the entire journey, companies can evoke positive emotions and delight customers. A simpler, more intuitive approach to design can help achieve this goal, leading to improved customer experiences.

Q: Why is simplicity important in scaling organizations or projects?

As organizations or projects grow, they inherently become more complex. However, it is crucial to maintain simplicity in order to effectively scale. The video emphasizes the idea of making things as simple as possible, but no simpler. By keeping processes, procedures, and roles streamlined, unnecessary complexity can be avoided. It is a balancing act of acknowledging the need for growth and adding complexity while still incorporating human limits. Finding the right balance is key to successfully scaling projects or organizations.

Q: How did Larry Page's approach to removing managers at Google impact their operations?

In the early days of Google, Larry Page made the decision to eliminate managers as he longed for the simplicity and freedom of the company's early days. However, this approach proved to be unsustainable as the organization grew. One executive ended up having more than 100 engineers reporting to them, causing inefficiencies and challenges in managing such a large team. Google eventually realized the need for first-line supervisors and hierarchical structures to better manage their expanding workforce. This demonstrates the importance of adapting management approaches as organizations evolve and grow.

Q: What is the purpose of hierarchy in organizations?

According to Chris Fry, head of engineering at Twitter, the purpose of hierarchy is to destroy bad bureaucracy. Hierarchy, when properly implemented, helps eliminate ineffective and inefficient processes and structures within an organization. It provides a framework for decision-making, delegation, and accountability. By establishing a well-designed hierarchy, an organization can ensure that power and authority are distributed in a way that promotes efficiency, collaboration, and innovation. It serves as a necessary structure for larger projects and organizations, allowing for better coordination and communication.

Q: How can structure and process be effectively implemented in organizations?

Ben Horowitz suggests putting in just enough structure and process to give ground grudgingly. This means finding the right balance between adding necessary structure and avoiding excessive bureaucracy. It is important to wait for cracks to appear in the system before implementing changes, rather than waiting for a complete breakdown. By being responsive and adaptive to the evolving needs of the organization, structure and process can be introduced gradually and judiciously. This approach allows for flexibility and agility while still providing guidance and stability.


In summary, the video highlights the negative impact of cognitive load and the importance of simplicity in managing complexity. It emphasizes the need for design thinking and customer-centric approaches to enhance experiences. While hierarchy and structure become necessary with organizational growth, finding the right balance is crucial. The purpose of hierarchy should be to eliminate bad bureaucracy, and the implementation of structure and process should be done thoughtfully and incrementally. Ultimately, acknowledging and incorporating human limits is essential in managing scalable projects and organizations.

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