Remember the KISS principle? Keep It Simple Stupid was a Navy design mantra in the 60’s, reportedly born out of the legendary Lockheed Skunk Works. The basic idea is to avoid unnecessary complexity whenever possible and to always be looking for ways to simplify systems, processes, products, etc. Most reading this post have grown up in a business world obsessed with simplification: simplification in business writing (simple words, simple sentences), simplification in communication (Twitter character limits), quality programs designed to remove waste or simplify processes, technology to simplify how we buy products…and on and on.
Yet, our world has continued to grow more complex. More people, more challenges, more money, more products, more options, more, more, more. Along with the sheer increase in quantity of everything, have come increasingly complex problems: social, political, cultural, ideological, spiritual, health, mental, business, disease, environmental, etc. We may still hunger for simplicity but things are not headed in that direction. Things just aren’t simple.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the complexity of the world around us, we are quick to embrace simple answers. We want quick and easy solutions to whatever troubles us. For our health complexities, we want a pill. For our pandemics, we want a shot. For anything we want to buy, we want an easy-button to click and have it show up at our door. To categorize our diverse political views, we want to toss 330 million people into two big-bucket political parties. To fix massive social issues, we want to fund, or defund, or blame, or legislate, or spend, or tax; always trying one thing, always too little, or too much, or too late. To communicate, we want a simple headline. About the only thing we don’t want simply is our coffee, I mean, our grande no foam skinny oat milk half caff splenda cappuccino – or whatever it is we’re drinking today.
In our quest to bring order, control, and simplicity to the world around us, perhaps we’ve lost sight of the beauty and possibility of complexity. in our need for instant gratification, quick/easy answers, and a clear path, maybe we’re missing the growth and change that comes from wrestling with the complex. in our impatience and short-term view on our priorities, we might be overlooking the immense impact that focused effort might yield a hundred years from now. As individuals, we intuit all of the above but struggle to individually, or collectively, focus ourselves in meaningful ways on the complexities of today. We want solutions but demand they be simple, quick, and require minimal effort.
Can complexity be our friend? Yes, it can. First, we need to frame complexity properly. Our world is complex. People are complex. Problems are complex. That’s ok. Complexity is a puzzle. Complexity can be broken down into component parts. Complexity is nuanced and demands more intention, more effort, more time, more patience, and more sophistication. Complexity has many moving parts but they are comprehensible. Complexity can be ordered, even if order is not immediately obvious. Complexity frequently hides opportunity and, often, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward.
Contrast all of the above with complication, a term grown out of the word, complicate, which originally meant to fold, combine. or entangle. A complication is a difficulty, a disruption, an unintended consequence. Complication is the fly in the ointment, wrench in the works, and the grit that hampers the smoothly running machine. We complicate things by our decisions, beliefs, expectations, desires, insecurities, biases, or selfishness. Complication can be pressed upon us by the behavior of another. A complication is a break, a tear, or a knot that needs repair or untangling. Complication is chaos and disorder.
Complication often leads to thrashing, spinning our wheels, and non-productive effort. We have to react to complication. Complication sits outside of our plan, acting upon, and at cross purposes, to our objectives. Frequently, we confuse complexity with complication. The unknowns of complexity can look alot like complication: dangerous, threatening, and risky. Faced with complication, we tend to retreat, quit, or become frustrated.
If we know that complexity presents opportunity but often looks like complication, how do we discern the difference? Complication is imprecise speech and obfuscation. Complication is extra steps and indirect paths. Complication is extra work for little or no gain. Complexity is the multi-leveled game board with many pieces. It operates on a long horizon with many, multi-layered dependencies. Complexity is a game with many players and many ways to win, or lose. As human beings, we are all complex, however, we can also be complicated: unpredictable, disruptive, unsure, insecure, unclear, dishonest, and even malevolent. No wonder we get confused.
Navigating complexity requires a plan; a plan that will require careful consideration and preparation. Complex problems or objectives require sustained effort to resolve. Complications are barriers to be removed; they should be anticipated and mitigated when possible. We work to avoid complication through careful planning, preparation, and execution. An orderly approach to complexity can help us avoid the chaos of complication, though we will rarely avoid it completely.
Everyday, we see people retreating from the opportunities of complexity because it looks complicated. However, complexity doesn’t have to be complicated. We need to approach complexity as a puzzle to be solved rather than a fly in our ointment. Albert Einstein once said that “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Significant problems are complex, we are often the ones who created the complication, and we thrive when we’re fully deployed against a complex challenge. We also grow through the process, regardless of its outcome.
By all means, work to simplify where you can. Break complexity into its component parts, postulate specific solutions, and try to find the most direct solutions. Just remember that complexity hides great possibility, requires careful planning and preparation to address, demands persistence, and may require a long time horizon. Meaningful progress is not an easy-button process. Along the way, anticipate complication while being intentional in your efforts not to complicate. Know that simplicity typically lies on the far side of complexity and that’s ok. Getting there is a worthy endeavor.