“Think simple” as my old master used to say – meaning reduce the whole of its parts into the simplest terms, getting back to first principles.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Why is it that so often people look for complex solutions to problems? One reason is that people tend to mistrust that a simple solution can actually resolve a complex (or simple) problem. Another reason is that people don’t know how to look (and therefore find) a simple solution. Every day all of us, I’m sure, can find situations where ‘things’ are being made far more complex than need be. Most often this complexity is unintentional however complexity can be a profitable game for some; say your PC has ‘crashed’ and you are desperate to get your data back, the solution may be as simple as the PC technician (or you) running a Windows repair disk which will take about an hour. The technician however may imply that significant complexity is involved in getting the PC working again which will result in over six hours labour. The five extra hours labour is a cost you as the consumer are willing to pay based on your understanding of the complexity involved in restoring your PC. Unethical practices such as deliberately adding complexity to defraud someone monetarily are a separate subject entirely and not covered in this article.
There are other situations where complexity is intentionally introduced in order to serve a personal purpose such as ‘survival’ or power-grabbing. This is often termed ‘politics’ within organizations and usually works against the good of the organization as a whole. Take this example; a person feels that their job will be at risk if they don’t have something to offer the organization that other employees don’t have. What the person then does is start to gossip about others who this person perceives as posing a risk to their job and starts to withhold information so as to become the single source of knowledge. Unfortunately most medium and large size organizations employ people like this and organizations often should do more to communicate that knowledge sharing and co-working is in the best interests of the organizations and the employees (and that purposefully negatively influencing the sharing of knowledge will not be tolerated).
As stated before, most complexity is introduced inadvertently. Been to a meeting where the answer seems so obvious and simple yet the meeting drags on for hours and no final solution is reached? Organizations must waste huge amounts of money every year through unnecessarily complex solutions. Here are four guidelines to assist in groups reaching more effective solutions more quickly (keeping in mind of course that simplicity should be sought in all activities and not only in formal group actions):
1. Embrace the Simple and Obvious:
If something is obvious then it is likely the best solution. For some reason people love to look for solutions that aren’t immediately obvious or are very convoluted; obvious solutions are usually the most simple and easiest to implement. Richard Dawkins summed this up well with ‘complex, statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult to explain than simple, statistically probable things’.
2. Speak the same language:
‘The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words’. Mary Anne Evans/George Eliot
Organizations often create their own language e.g. set of acronyms or terms used. It is essential that, when trying to find a solution, everyone is communicating effectively and understands the dialog. The language and words used should be as generic and non-technical as possible (i.e. simple) to afford the greatest chance of minimizing misunderstandings.
3. Check your foundation:
In troubleshooting situations it is easy to interweave multiple assumptions into the problem especially as time goes by and ideas are investigated. The problem then changes from the basic factual understanding of it. It is therefore necessary to get rid of assumptions especially where they may be inaccurate and return to the basic problem. As Ayn Rand noted ‘Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong’.
4. Understand and keep revisiting the Objective or Problem
Everyone in the group must have the same understanding of the problem that requires a solution or the objective. If the whole group doesn’t share a common perception of the problem or objective then how can the objective be reached or problem resolved? If the objective is to reduce staff absenteeism’ then all must understand this objective and it must be reiterated at various intervals (to realign the groups’ thoughts towards the objective). As Peter Drucker noted about Management by Objectives; “Management by objective works – if you know the objectives. Ninety percent of the time you don’t.” (One person’s simple objective or goal is anothers extreme complexity however as is illustrated by Stephen Hawking’s goal: ‘My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all’.)
To sum it all up, in the words of Confucius, ‘life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated’. At the end of it all, the attitude should really be ‘everything is simple, what is important is finding the way to make things simple’
P.S. There are many theories dealing with complexity and simplicity including; KISS, Occam’s Razor, Worse is Better, Parsimony etc.