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.
But 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.
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.