The Gift to be Simple

The best expression of the key to high performance is – strange to say – in the film Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.  Sam and Donna are in a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea when Donna expresses words that provide the solution to life’s most challenging problems.

We live in a complex world. Much of what we face in our daily lives appears so difficult to understand, so complicated to explain and so hard to achieve. Yet, every day people do amazing things, often incredibly complex things.

I was recently in Morocco admiring the beautiful, exquisitely ornate and symmetrical tiles. The craftsmanship to design and then execute such a complicated pattern is impressive. Outside one palace I saw a chap producing a similar series of tableaux, as intricate as any in the finest palace, as you can see from the photo. Despite the complexity of the design, it was clearly something he found relatively easy. And that got me thinking. There must be a simple process behind the bewilderingly complex design. There must be a way to reduce that complexity to a combination of regular patterns which, once you know them, would allow generations of Moroccan tilers to produce them with ease.

So I set out to establish how the ornate pattern worked, and I broke it down into a series of geometric shapes and angles.


The squares that surround the six main patterns were easy to spot. And as you look harder you can see a square whose corners intersect with the midpoint of the original square’s sides. A third square appears a bit smaller and rotated 45 degrees. And you begin to see how the structure of the design works.

But there are strange angles. Eight white areas radiate around the central shape – but they don’t follow the diagonal splitting the corners of the square equally at 45 degrees.


Continue to look hard and suddenly the solution rises from the picture. It’s not the diagonals! It’s the lines between the intersections of the two internal squares – and there you have your strange angle. From there you can gradually build your lines up to create the full pattern.

And this is how the Moroccan tilers must do it.  No need for complicated measuring tools or protractors. You just need some squares and you can draw your guidelines and follow a simple logic to build up the complexity and beauty of the design.


I spend a lot of time doing this in my work: helping companies turn complicated projects into small, simple, achievable steps. That’s what struck me in Morocco: this is a metaphor for how to approach complex problems.

It’s what I did when confronted with the huge project to produce a training and piloting plan for 2,500 journalists moving into the BBC’s new London headquarters. The final plan was an exquisitely complex spreadsheet with over 50,000 cells. First I looked carefully at the shapes and saw how they intersected. I then identified simple patterns that I could multiply to create the complex mosaic which was the launch plan.

Executive coaches use the same process to help a client bamboozled by a catalogue of confusing challenges.  The technique is called “chunking down”, where you get them to break the challenge down into its constituent parts to identify the real location of the problem. And suddenly it’s much easier to solve. You identify a series of simple small challenges, aggregate them up to create a comprehensive solution: A simple way to maximise performance.

And you can even use the process when confronting one of human life’s most confusing challenges: Love. Which brings us back to Donna and Sam floating in their boat in Mamma Mia 2. Donna is trying to persuade Sam to drop everything to live with her on her Greek island.

“Nothing is that simple,” says Sam.

Everything is that simple,” replies Donna, “when you break it down.”

Sadly for Donna, Sam didn’t break it down and left her on the island.

Happily for ABBA fans, Donna did.