The KISS of Death – How Simplicity Can Ruin Everything

36732380“Keep It Simple, Stupid!” is a motto with many followers. The funny thing about the KISS principle is that it sounds right, but it isn’t!

An example from real life

I was describing a process once, together with an external consultant. We worked with it for some time, finally producing a swimlane diagram with 15 boxes – meaning 15 activities to be done by people all over the organization. The diagram was to be used in the general communication, as part of the overall set of instructions.

When I showed this diagram to my boss, he looked like if he had seen a ghost. “You cannot publish a diagram with so many boxes”, he shouted, “nobody will understand it, it is much too complex”.

I tried to explain to him that there were 15 things to be done, therefore 15 boxes: each person who should do something should be able to find his or her task there in the diagam, so that it was clear that it had to be done. “It will never work! I will not allow it! Go change the diagram into one with at most four boxes!!!”

As it happened, he insisted. A diagram with four boxes would not show anything of value – it would just show that we knew how a box looked like. But he didn’t get it – he didn’t understand that the diagram had a purpose. He just wanted something simple. No matter what.

An example from literature

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote a thought provoking story of a president and his family being captured by terrorists. These bad guys had an atomic bomb and would kill millions – if not the president would sacrifice one of his children. After many tough considerations the president then decided which one of the children it should be and it was taken away. This happened repeatedly, until the whole family was gone. I will not reveal the whole plot here, just mention that the morale of the story was, of course, that some things belong together and should not be split – like a family. If you split it anyway, you are doing the wrong thing.

The scary effects of simplicity

There are many examples from business life: not the least most management philosophies, which are simplifications of what has apparently made other companies succesful. They are attempts to boil down a success to an essense, a miracle medicine.

imagesCAOZ9G7JBut the problem with simplicity is that people often believe that it is not a simplification – that it is the whole thruth. Statistics are usually treated this way. Who hasn’t heard comments like “we know that the underlying data are wrong, but that’s the best we have – and the diagram does show a trend”. What trend? A trend in random data?! Who can lead a company on that basis? But it is being done every day in many companies.

The hunt for simplicity is probably rather an escape from complexity – from work to do and from details to understand. It is laziness or escapism or both.

Is simplicity any good?

You can use simplifications as ways into understanding. Like when teaching a complicated matter through several steps. Nobody expects that the first step is the full explanation, and most often nobody will claim to be an expert after that. But after several additional steps you are there – an expert! There might still be more to know, but now you know enough to find out the rest.

But you cannot use simplifications as an easier way to solve complex problems. “Divide and conquer” might work, but that is because it doesn’t necessarily reduce complexity, it just stretches it over several independent tasks. If you decide to go for the four-box version of a procedure and skip the 15-box version, you will most likely see that the procedure will not work. It is like dialling only four digits of a much longer phone number. Who are you trying to fool?

It may just be that there has always been a battle between those who can understand and accept complexity and those who cannot. In this way, it is a problem in the same league as patience, which I described in How Long is “Continuous”?. I have a feeling, however, that both are getting worse: people are overall becoming less patient and are accepting less complexity than before. Maybe as a result of information overload – the Internet has done its part in this – but maybe also as a result of stress: when having too much to do, it seems obvious to try to focus only on the simple things that can be done fast, and on communicating only thoughtless non-ideas, as mentioned in Sharing Thoughts Requires Thinking.

The future

I just wonder how society will develop without complexity? Everything that makes it advanced rely on complexity: the microchip, laws, infrastructure/traffic, bureaucracy, educational programs. Nothing of this can be understood in a minute but we all benefit from the fact that some people take their time to understand and improve it anyway. What will happen if they stop doing it?

H. G. Wells showed that quite well in “The Time Machine” – people in a far future will live like animals, having forgotten all about the value of knowledge and society. Their laziness will have deprived them of their freedom and of further development.

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7 Responses to The KISS of Death – How Simplicity Can Ruin Everything

  1. Axel Vanhooren says:

    One more excellent post. Thanks Jørgen.

    I like the fact that you say that “divide and conquer might work”. It should really be emphasised that it doesn’t work all the time. But many people, when they face a complex issue, are inclinced to cut it in pieces. Some issues require an overall understanding. They need a wholistic, multi-perspective and multi-disciplinary approach. Other techniques have to be applied.

    There is a famous quote that seems to come from Einstein Albert “Everything should be made as simple as possible, But not simpler”. But this is what we too often do. Reality is often much more complex than we think. Making things not more complex than necessary is good. But, if we don’t have a true understanding, we may too easily oversimplifying, even without knowing it. And I am sure it happen to all of us. Oversimplifying means that the solution doesn’t reflect the reality and is likely to generate new problems, either immediately or in the future.

    Basically, (over-)simplification is very bad when it is used as an end point and it is good when it is considered as a starting point (for understanding, for modeling a structure, for further investigation, …) and further action are taken to deepen the understanding of the issue.

    • Thank you vey much for your kind words.

      You have some good and useful thoughts that I find inline with mine. Now we just have to convince the world 🙂 One major issue we are up against is that it often is more comfortable and immediately rewarding to go for the simple explanation, understanding, and solution.

      Even when over-simplifying things is known by some of the involved to lead to sub-optimization or even to a bad or lacking result, it still goes that way quite often – because we run into yet another problem in the range: a wide-spread lack of ability to see how effects are connected to previous actions. Most people simply cannot or do not attempt to see the long lines of connected events, so running with the simple (and useless) solution will most likely not have any negative consequences for the individual who does it, if the bad effects appear more than a few months ahead. Running with the complex solution, on the contrary, will immediately be considered a risk that will be connected to the individual.

      So very often it is more safe for people to do the wrong thing.

  2. Axel Vanhooren says:

    hmm… the simple but wrong solution, hypes, … it’s all related. We are scared of problem solving. So we don’t do it. We avoid problems. Even the term “problem” is very negative.
    We dispose of anything that is problematic (e.g. privatisation, outsourcing, analysts building what people asked for, sticking to standards and known solutions, …) and buy “solutions”.

    To convince the world, I am in favour to learn pupils at school to think critically and to learn solving problems. And how about wholistic and multi-disciplinary approaches?

    • Yes, I think that your suggestions could be useful: teach the young ones how to see the whole and they may take it with them into their working behaviour – if their colleagues will allow it! Because the preferred manager today seems to be the effective one, the one who will create some results fast.

      Even though there is a lot of talking about efficiency – through all the process optimization programs, like Lean, Six Sigma, etc. – the managers still need to create those fast results. And then we are back to a situation where holism simply cannot be “granted” og taken for granted. Short term thinking will prevent it, and these hopeful young ones will have to adapt to the harsh realities of life.

      One way of getting short of this tendency is to emphasize a dialogue-styled communication, as expected by a learning organization: that is, an honest and open style of thinking and communicating. The dialogue can even be formalized, but for it to work it is important that the formal power structures can be put away while the dialogue takes place. For this reason, coaching can become problematic when done by the manager on the employee – they are not equal and often cannot establish an honest dialogue.

      Some consultants who work with improving the internal communication in organization try to prevent managers from taking part together with the employees in their communications training. In some organizations this step is necessary, as the internal power structures would otherwise prevent the intented results from happening.

      What I tend to believe in, is that systems thinking has a good mix of formalism and “free-thinking” to act as the glue between the power-based (often rationalist/taylorist) communication and the (systemic/humanist) dialogue. In a meeting session where the communication is being directed towards a projection (for drawing a rich picture of the situation, for instance), everybody involved will easily feel that they are talking about a case, not about their own opinions. That will make them more free to say what they need – as it is clear to everyone else that they are acting in a constructive way, they dare to do it, even when their boss is also present.

      Such a meeting is good, but mostly for those who are the fastest and who quickly get an overview – the good debaters. For everybody else the meeting will provide knowledge on their colleagues’ opinions more than a chance to express their own. And for that reason, I suggest to use supplementary coaching (by someone not managing the coachee, for instance an external coach) on an individual basis. The two approaches can be mixed – there can be regular plenum meetings mixed with regular coaching meetings. To some extend, perhaps group or team coaching can be used as well, but only for such groups or teams where the power structures or other differences between the participants will not stand in the way of individual learning.

      And learning is what it is all about: either from the dialogue with others or from the dialogue within one self, the latter being what coaching can help improve.

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