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Featured Interview – Dan Ward, Author of the Simplicity Cycle and F.I.R.E

Recently I had the chance to catch up with Dan Ward is the author of The Simplicity Cycle and F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. He served in the USAF for 20 years where he specialized in leading high-speed, low-cost technology development programs. Dan is now a principal systems engineer and innovation catalyst at the MITRE Corporation.


What is the back story behind Simplicity Cycle?

This book was inspired by a conversation I had with a Naval officer 17 years ago, when I was a junior officer. I was in her office to demonstrate a new piece of technology, and before I even started, she said “I don’t care how good this thing is. If it isn’t easy to use, I don’t want it.” That phrase stuck in my head and set me on a course of research into the relationship between complexity and goodness, about how complexity sometimes makes things better and other times gets in the way. I wrote this book to explore that idea.

And yes, the new system I was demonstrating that day was easy to use, and she did like it. I just wish I could find her again to let her know about the book she inspired.

What books had the most impact on you and your development?

Tom Peters was the first business author I really got into – his work is amazing, and his most recent book The Excellence Dividend is a terrific summary of his life’s work. Garr Reynolds’ book Presentation Zen changed the way I give presentations, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hates PowerPoint. I also adore David Whyte’s book Crossing The Unknown Sea. I’ve read that 6 or 7 times and I come away with something new each time. He’s a poet who writes about work and transitions and finding meaning… always blows me away.

But the biggest credit has to go to Don Norman. He’s the guy who coined the term UX (for User Experience). He’s a true design guru, and his books (Design of Everyday Things, Emotional Design, etc) had an enormous impact on my own work as a military technologist. I wrote him a fan letter at one point, he wrote back, and we had an ongoing correspondence for a few years. He encouraged me to write the Simplicity Cycle book, introduced me to his literary agent, and even agreed to write the forward. What a gift!

As an acquisitions guy I assume you do quite a bit of technical reading. What value can someone gain from non-technical reading such as literature, history and personal development books?

I’ve probably learned more about leadership, teamwork, courage, and integrity from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings than most of the formal leadership books I’ve read. I mean, they’re also fun books to read, and that’s important to point out. I read a ton of fiction because I enjoy it. But I also value good fiction because it’s enlightening. It challenges me as a person and a military leader.

How has writing your books, articles, and comics helped refine and improve your thinking?

That’s actually the main reason I write in the first place – to test and clarify my own thoughts. When I put something on paper, I can hold it up to the light and see if I think it’s true. Can I explain it, support it, validate it? Did I express it clearly? If not, then I probably don’t understand it very well myself. Writing is absolutely essential to honing my own mental work.

And then sharing it with the rest of the world is another big test – how do other people respond to what I’ve written? I had several good friends help me develop the Simplicity Cycle by reading early drafts and discussing it with me. Then when a dentist said she really liked it, I knew I was onto something. I like to say that the best ideas in the world are worthless if you can’t express them clearly to other people.

And I’m glad you mentioned comics – I’ve done a fair amount of writing in a comic format, including a little Comic Guide to the Simplicity Cycle. Comics demand a certain type of simplicity, and I find the constraints of the format really stretch my creativity. Incidentally, the idea that “constraints foster creativity” is the key message of my first book, F.I.R.E.

One of the reasons I write comics is to reach more readers. I know there are plenty of people who would not read the book, but they might read the comic. Plus, they’re fun to make and to share.

Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?

There’s a little riff in the book about trust, and I’ve been thinking about that part quite a bit lately. Trust is a great simplifier, which is why I wrote about it in this particular book, but trust is also key to helping a team perform at its best. So I presented some research about trust – the dynamics of how to build and maintain trust and psychological safety, what trust really means and why it matters.

One thing I discovered is that trust isn’t really earned. There is a certain element of uncertainty in trust, and if I know with absolute certainty that I can rely on you to do something, then that’s not really trust, is it? Relying on someone is not the same as trusting them. Trust involves a bit of a gamble, a bit less predictability. That’s why I tend to think trust is not earned, it’s given, then it is validated or violated. The good news is, people who are trusted tend to behave in a trustworthy manner. If we want our team to be trustworthy, the best move is to trust them.

I’m no Military acquisitions officer, I don’t design tanks or build jet planes and I don’t even know anyone in the military. I’m just an average dad who lives and works in the suburbs and deals with kids, pizza and commutes, how would this book benefit me?

I continue to be surprised by the places where the Simplicity Cycle finds a home. I wrote it with technologists and software coders in mind, but I’ve heard from artists who say it describes their artmaking process, and from a dentist who said it described her work too. Just last week I gave a guest lecture for a bunch of graduate students studying international relations. The class was titled Peace and Conflict, and they were using The Simplicity Cycle as their text book.

It turns out, engineers aren’t the only ones who deal with complexity! You don’t have to be a software coder or jet engine designer – even cooking a meal or composing an email involves decisions about complexity. This book gives readers tool to help them understand why some things work better than others, why some things are easier to use than others.

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