The hard line of complexity

Image – hollidaypics

This is my prediction for what I’ll be thinking about and focussing on more in 2017.

We complicate things and we do so most of the time. All progress depends on finding ways to side step the complexity we create at every opportunity.

The outcomes we’re working to deliver in business or the public sector are usually very simple. More sales, or more growth. The creation of more jobs, or infrastructure. All to meet the needs of the market or people we serve.

The problem is the scale of how we work through our solutions. Multiply the size and scale of delivery for any problem space and things get complicated.

This is because we create our own complexity. You could call this bureaucracy. It’s the same whether you’re delivering government policy or scaling a new startup.

The hard line of complexity

Looking at politics in 2016, the art and science of prediction in the modern world is clearly broken. What we need is to master the art of invention (creativity). This is the domain of design thinking rather than the domain of experts.

In the world of the private and public sectors complexity seems to happen for 2 reasons:

1. A lack of focus.
2. Maintenance.

As I described before, the systems and structures we create can quickly become too complex to understand or predict.

This is a lack of focus on what’s really important. We allow things to drift away, out of our control or comprehension. Part of the problem is we lack the tools to communicate our own thinking or to create a shared understanding of a problem space with others.

We then create systems that suit our own needs. It means that we make decisions for the purpose of maintenance rather than progress. For exclusivity, rather than diversity. To keep things closed, rather than open.

This is all highlighted by the common belief that we need more experts or more consultants to help us understand our own created complexity.

We’re only just seeing how dangerous this approach is. It concludes that making things simple, or making things that work for everyone, is impossible. It concludes that everything complex needs a translator.

This is the hard line of complexity. It marks the point when we move beyond the complexity of our lives – the real problems we should be focussing on, to the complexity we’ve created.

We paint this line ourselves. When we cross over it we’re being asked to embrace the bureaucracy of a broken system. Something that will forever be waiting to be transformed.

Designing a new order

We can be overwhelmed by the complexity of the problems we face or we can find new ways to deal with them.

The way forward is making things simple.

To do this we first have to accept that it’s complexity that makes us human.

This means having a different set of intentions, or being willing to focus on the complex realities of everyday life and the extremes of individual experience. Moving more towards the real complexity of understanding the underlying needs and inherent complexity of the real lives we live is important.

Making the complex simple

How is this possible?

You have to find ways to make complex things simple. Using language, ideas, clarity and creativity to move around, over, or just remove unnecessary complexity altogether. In doing so, you also remove the need for experts and consultants while encouraging the clarity and creativity they were lacking.

Lives are complicated, but emotions less so.

To most people, a service or product is helping them do something or it simply isn’t helping them at all.

When you work within the welfare system (like I do at the moment) it’s a simple question or whether someone feels secure, or if the experience and support they’re receiving still leaves them feeling afraid.

Finally, some principles for making things simple, we have to:

  • take small risks every day
  • better understand emotions
  • interpret data in order to understand, and generalise in order to act
  • make intuitive leaps based on things we don’t yet know enough about
  • be prepared to be wrong
  • break old things to build new things.

Early conclusions

It’s okay to ignore vast amounts of complexity.

We can quickly establish whether this is reflecting the true complexity of human experience or something that’s been created that no longer serves its purpose. Calling out this type of complexity isn’t about your type of politics. It should be everyone’s responsibility if we want to meaningfully change how our public and private sectors organise themselves.

We must keep things simple because outcomes are simple. People’s lives might be complicated but this isn’t how they see their future.

When thinking about this I remembered the famous story of one mans ability to use his reality distortion field: the ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything is possible.

We must now find our own ways forward to make things simple. Learning how to ignore the wrong type of complexity so we can design the alternative.

Further conclusions

Updated 15 February – After reading a comment posted on medium in response to this post, I summarised the key points.

When it comes to complexity, we have a choice:

1. Focus on maintaining the increasingly complexity we create ourselves

2. Focus on the true complexity that makes us all human, and design better systems and processes to meet those needs.

This is a challenge to how we think about re-organising ourselves to best design for the real needs of society. So the emphasise is on our willingness to find ways to move away from maintaining complex systems that might turn out to be the very things preventing us from doing just that.

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