Friday, February 22, 2008

Complexity and Simplicity

I’ve been thinking about the very legitimate discussion that happens now and again between those who think simplicity is not the real world of business and life. I'm pretty sure some believe the world is full of complexity and maybe they think that simplicity as a mantra is a naive view.

Of course I accept that not everything in business is simple.

Of course there is complexity and it is hard work to try and work out for instance how the heck the NHS works in the UK if you don’t happen to work inside it. Actually even if you do work inside the NHS it is difficult to work out how it works!

My entire argument is that things do not have to be as complex as we make them.

Two things to illustrate my point.

Firstly I love story telling – it is perhaps the most under used skill of any manager or leader. It is such an effective method of communicating. We learn the skill from our Parents and Grandparents if we are lucky. We can carry on the tradition by telling stories to our own children and Grandchildren. So the brilliant news is you don’t need to go to business school to learn this skill. And yet mangers and business schools are already polluting story telling with unnecessarily complicated language by calling it

‘The use of narrative’

It is not 'the use of narrative' - for crying out loud IT IS STORY TELLING!

Secondly how many of you know anyone who goes to sleep at night hoping, praying and dreaming that their work will be more complex tomorrow?

I rest my case on Simplicity


Richard Lipscombe said...

Great to see the word "complexity" appearing on this site... I hope that in some small way that I have contributed (through our private discussions) to that horrid word appearing herein.

For me complexity is a given - it is a simple fact of life. Its existence is why you write your missives about Simplicity. If the world was run along the lines you suggest then there would be nothing to write about - no stories to tell and no fun in our lives.

It is cute the way you make light of complexity with quips like no one wakes up wanting their work to be more complex today. You are a gifted politician.

On the contrary the real talent in the world does exactly that - they wake up each and every day looking forward to new challenges and new problems to solve. The real talent at a workplace stays if and only if there is complexity around to deal with on a daily basis. The real talent gets off on ambiguity, uncertainty, discontinuity, etc.

The real talent craves complexity not simplicity because they can only ever hope to combat complexity by using variety, inventiveness, innovation, new ideas, changed habits, and expansive mindsets.

I have a story about the power of "complexity" to make a positive and sustained difference in working people's lives.

A decade ago I had a client who was the CEO of Cable Manufacturer that was in danger of going broke - I mean close the doors and everyone just go home now! Within four great weeks, by working long long hours together, we set this entity on a pathway to the full health and survival that it enjoys today.

We did it by embracing COMPLEXITY - I must admit that I drove them all mad (like really insane mad) with my theories, ideas, and strategies to change their habits, mindsets, and ways of being the world. BUT they did change and they did survive - only because they all (God bless them!) saw that their industry had to change in almost every aspect of work.

I told them they could only survive if they led their industry into this new age - BUT going into that consultancy all they asked me to do was win a major tender. Of course by working insanely hard together we won the tender and they went on to win every other tender for five years based on their new ideas about doing Cable making (in the process they drove their major competitor out of business).

If I had Simplicity in my mind the day I walked in to the place then I would pocketed my very generous fee without raising a sweat but all those workers would have sunk like a stone.

I asked my client half way through the gig why he didn't hire a much more qualified consultant than me (I suspected it was the fact he charged 3 times my fee) because I knew he had also tendered for the job. He simply said - "he was not the man for job!". He explained that he would never have got the men and women out there in the factories to see the complexity of the new Cable industry they seek to earn a living in.

Then in a moment I will never forget he turned to me and looked me squarely in the eyes (you should know Ian is a big man around 6ft 8inches tall and he is intimidating at close range) and he said "no one grows up wanting to be a Cable maker!" "What you have done is change all that for those people out there - they just love coming to work each day to see what challenges and impossible problems the mad consultant has for them today"... He concluded by saying "thanks for that - you have given them a real purpose to be here AND they now know we will survive and thrive"

Months later on a plane the man next to me told me he was a Union Official. He asked what I do and then asked my name. WOW! You are that ....... - do you know that they have so many great stories about you at all the Cable factories... None of them are true I quickly assured him! He said you multi-skilled that workforce for the future by getting them to embrace the complexity of the new contract you designed to win their first 5 year contract against all comers around the world. I have to tell you all those sites are a joy to visit because there is always something new and exciting going on there.

Trevor - my friend - I do not ever expect to change your mind about Simplicity - I understand it is now pure ideology for you but please be aware that other people have good stories to tell too......

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Richard

Hope its warm enough for you in Aus!

Great story – thanks for sharing – always good to see you visiting Simplicity Blog.

Many people I’ve worked with during my career (both senior to me and junior to me) tell terrific stories about dismantling complexity to make it mean something to people – dismantling complexity is a great skill.

I ALWAYS listen to and value the stories of others. Stories are the best form of communication I know in business.

I am not arrogant enough to say I am right about simplicity or that complexity is not a reality. But I am confident when I say simplicity suits me and if that makes it an ‘ideology’ for me then I agree with you. Simplicity is not something I have ‘latched on to’ in the last year or two. I have been saying simplify management since Adam was a boy. I guess my passion for simplicity goes back well over 30 years. I have never thought of it as an ‘ideology’ – more about questioning whether things really have to be as complex as we make them.

Interesting how Philips and now O2 are both using the word ‘simplicity’ in their strap lines for marketing. Two modern cutting edge companies using 'simplicity' - I love the sound of that.

Most reviews of my book have been positive but someone reviewing my book recently said simplicity is ‘old hat and was dumped over 10 years ago as a concept’ – My answer is - has anyone told Philips and O2 or the word’s leading simplicity guru Professor John Maeda?

You are right that your influence in our private discussions has been terrific on my thinking. The great thing about our debates is that whilst you and I see this thing through different lenses we are able to have the discussion and remain great friends.

Look forward one day to that cold Lager on Bondi Beach or a Pint of Real Ale in an English Pub here in Shakespeare’s County :-)

The Dan Ward said...

Nicely done, Trevor! Love the imagery of a person praying for more complexity in their organization!

And I too am miffed, put out and otherwise distressed when I hear people talk about storytelling as "the use of narrative" or other such formality. I've even encountered people talk about "Story" (with a capital S) in such a dry, academic tone that I wonder if they have ever heard one.

As for complexity and simplicity, might I suggest my own "Simplicity Cycle" book has some relevant insight for your discussion with Mr. Lipscombe? It illustrates the ways in which complexity is good... and also shows that at a certain point, we reach a critical mass of complexity, whereby any additional increases actually decrease goodness.

So simplicity is indeed the key - but so it complexity, at times...

Trevor Gay said...

Thanks Dan – I’m sure Richard would be delighted to see your book Simplicity Cycle. I don’t argue simplicity from an academic perspective – I argue it from a pragmatic and common sense viewpoint based on years of seeing simple ideas turned into unnecessarily complex processes and they lose their energy and passion. In essence the life is sucked out of great ideas! Of course complexity is around us every day – my question remains why do we have to make stuff complex when it is simple?

Hillbillyphd said...

What a great discussion. I do agree that most people like to be challenged. It keeps things interesting and new. If I am challenged by something I tend to study and seek knowledge on the topic. I like the challenge of trying to master something. But, as I study a topic I am constantly trying to figure out how to streamline and break it down to its most simple components. I want to become the master of the project, etc.... So,yes I do like the challenge that complexity brings, but in essence the challenge for me is to break the complex down to the simple. I am not sure If what I am writing makes any sense, but what I am trying to say is I love the challenge of making the complex simple. I would add that I believe that both are reliant on one another. Then again I am just a Hillbilly trying to lead a simple life.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Rocky - a Hillbilly with lots of important things to say Amigo!

I too like nothing better than working out things that appear complex. Breaking anything down into manageable bite size chunks is usually the way I solve problems too.

Keep well my friend

David Zinger said...

I liked the post and great narrative...what a story. I appreciate your approach to simplicity.

Trevor Gay said...

Thanks David - I appreciate your comments. Story telling is the most under-used skill in the manager's toolkit in my opinion :-)