Viewing entries tagged

"It's complicated."

 By Markus Bärlocher (Markus Bärlocher) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Markus Bärlocher (Markus Bärlocher) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is?

Lots of the complicated problems we are confronted with are really artificially complicated. In other words, we make things seem complicated to avoid facing simple realities. He’s just not that into you. They were better than us and so we lost. She’s a jerk. It’s too expensive. It doesn’t work.

Confusing ourselves with complications is just overblown denial. 

There are lots of complicated things in life: Running a hierarchical Bayes estimation model; learning to cook Indian food; tying a Double Fisherman’s Bend. 

But in most things, I think Occam was right. The simplest explanation is best. 


Great news! We made it really complicated!

I’ve been reminded a few times this past week that complexity is overrated. I love big Excel models and rambling blog posts as much as the next guy, but most of the time people just need us to make things easier to follow. 

Years ago I read A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. It’s a modern classic, although not a happy read by any stretch of the imagination. Exley is a tortured soul trying to find his way; he’s rather brilliant, so he picks up teaching. But as his students continue to struggle, it dawns on him that for all of his intellect he will never be a good teacher. He lacks, he realizes, “the intelligence to simplify.” It turns out that biggest obstacle facing his students is him. 

I’m not always great at learning from his example, but it stuck with me. Complexity can inspire awe — but more often than not it just perpetuates confusion. The best missions, strategies, and even relationships are simple. 

The fact is, unless your job is to design corn mazes, spelling bees, or crossword puzzles, what everyone wants is straighter lines, fewer syllables, and shorter words. No one cheers the person who makes things inscrutable hard to understand. 

Complexity does not equal sophistication.

We live in an era that encourages complexity. Are your “channels integrated”? Are your “constituents networked”? Did you make sure that you’ve “leveraged multi-level communications”? Is your staff “incentivized for program output”? Is your mission “oriented towards impact”?

In the modern world there are an abundance of ways to add complexity to your organization. It is increasingly easy to append layers and layers to your technique, communications, program, and mission. But complexity does not equal sophistication. Unless you have a rare clarity of vision and dogged focus, you will find that too many layers create a great big giant muddled mess.

Years ago, I read an interview with pianist and composer David Foster. He related a lesson from producer Quincy Jones:

He made me play a song for him once with one finger. I was playing it with a lot of flash, and he said, “Wait a minute. I just want to hear the song.” I’d taper it out and cool it more and more, but finally he grabbed one finger and said, “Play me the song with this finger!” Now, that’s hard to do. You can play Moon River with one finger, no problem. But try and play some funk tune, with no melody and no real content, with one finger. You can’t do it.

I love the mission of charity:water. When the describe themselves, they say: “charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations.” Boom. That’s it. Simple. That’s not to say that their approach isn’t driven, sophisticated, and thoughtful. It’s all of that. It is also elegant. It is simple.

Complex is easy to do. Sophisticated isn’t. It starts with stripping everything down to the melody and saying to yourself, would I hum this tune?