Kathleen Eisenhardt discusses her new book ‘Simple Rules’

May 13, 2015, 9:27 p.m.

Kathleen M. Eisenhardt is a Management Science & Engineering Professor and co-director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. She recently published “Simple Rules: How to Survive in a Complex World.” The book examines how clear, simple, specific rules can help manage complex life situations. Bloomberg TV called “Simple Rules” “the nerd book of the summer.” The Daily recently sat down with Eisenhardt to discuss her new book and the concept of simple rules.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): What is the main premise of ‘Simple Rules’?

Kathleen Eisenhardt (KME): The main premise is that in a complex world it’s often better to be simple. When you’re faced with a world with too many devices, too many meetings, too many things to do, or too many school demands, the best response to that is often to be simple rather than complicated.

TSD: What was the inspiration behind your book?

KE: I decided to break out of the ‘just writing an academic book thing’ and write a book that my friends might actually read. The premise was originally a study we did of technology firms. We noticed that firms on the East Coast tended to have too much bureaucracy and that firms on the West Coast tended to be too chaotic and not have enough rules and neither one was really effective. It seemed companies that had a small number of rules and were flexible within those rules tended to do the best. So we had that first insight and then we started noticing that people who were good at what they do tend to talk in simple rules. They tend to crystalize their insights. A classic example is the investor Warren Buffet who has the simple rule of “never invest in something that you don’t understand.” So we started looking at that phenomenon.

TSD: How does one develop simple rules?

KE: The process for formulating simple rules is three-steps. Think about what you’re trying to achieve: better health, better grades or company growth, and then think about what the roadblocks are. These steps are to pick an objective, identify the bottleneck keeping you from your objective and develop rules to navigate this bottleneck using expert sources, advice from friends and experiences in your own world.

TSD: Are there any situations where simple rules cannot be used?

KE: Situations that are fairly complex, but not changing-like taking off in an airplane. Pilots have a list of about 40 things that they go through. Simple rules are more about situations changing where you want flexibility. The other time you wouldn’t use simple rules is for a completely new situation that’s not very repeatable.  You wouldn’t have a simple rule for getting married because that is a one-time event. You presumably wouldn’t have enough experience to use simple rules. The choice to come to Stanford over another school would also use simple rules.

TSD: Do you have any simple rules that can apply to most Stanford students?

KE: Yes. Figure out what you’re trying to get out of your Stanford experience. That’s different for different people. Some people want a broad-ranging experience with different kinds of classes. Some are here for the social life, or focused on a career. Figure out what your objectives are. Then, figure out what’s keeping you from reaching your objectives—that would be the second simple rule. Am I not keeping my calendar well? Am I hanging out with the wrong people? Am I not enjoying my classes? Finally, create some simple rules to navigate around that bottleneck. If the bottleneck is about choosing classes, think about what classes you have enjoyed and what classes you have not. Start to think about what you liked about those classes. Develop rules that work for you. If you feel like your social life is too constrained, maybe realize you’re studying all the time.  One possible simple rule would be to choose certain nights to just kick back and enjoy yourself.

TSD: Did your research change your teaching style at Stanford?

KE: It’s made me more aware of what I do. I was always a reasonably good teacher. I get generally high ratings, but it made me more self-reflective of what I do, of what’s working and trying to do that more often. I usually tell the class what we’re going to do before the class and then I tell them after. This may sound kind of trivial, but not everybody does that. Then I try to mix it up about every 10 or 15 minutes. I might lecture and then do a discussion or a movie or a case and then switch topics. I try not to do anything for too long.

Contact Sophie Stuber at sstuber8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Sophie Stuber is a senior from Aspen, Colorado, studying International Relations, French and Creative Writing. Sophie has written for the Daily since freshman year . This year, she spends a significant portion of her time working on her thesis, which is about designing an international legal framework to aid people forcibly displaced due to climate change. Aside from academics, Sophie loves reading, writing short stories, listening to NPR, and adventuring outside. Any of her friends will tell you that she loves to talk about the mountains, skiing, Atlantic articles, and Rebecca Solnit essays.

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