Don’t be tempted to discount any problem, challenge or opportunity on the basis that it is ‘too complex’: and don’t avoid ‘simplicity’ on the basis that it doesn’t add to your professionalism or reputation.
There is a difference and relationship between complexity and simplicity
Anything that appears complex can be broken down into manageable parts or units of work, which can then be described in simple terms.
My experience and observation has provided numerous examples of people who have a natural bent toward:
- making their conversation, beliefs, explanations and reasons as complex as possible, and avoiding any sign of simplicity as much and as often as possible,
- making their conversation, beliefs, explanations and reasons as simple as possible, and avoiding any sign of complexity as much and as often as possible, and
- combining complexity and simplicity in their conversation, beliefs, explanations and reasons as much as possible to avoid any opportunity for others to easily explore what and why they are thinking or acting as they do.
I’ve noticed in my own conversation that, when I’m either very tired or under stress, I have a tendency toward complexity in my conversation. When my energy levels are healthy, my preference is always toward simplicity. By being aware of the difference, this acts as a warning for me to excuse myself from the conversation or writing task, and return to it when I’ve renewed my energy or relieved whatever was causing stress.
Being aware of this possibility also alerts me to signs of tiredness or stress in others – as my experience is not unique! In these circumstances, I defer continuation of the conversation until all parties have renewed their energy or relieved the stress.
There are professions in which complexity in conversation is seen to be a sign of authority or even wisdom – and that’s probably true when they are conversing with people for whom complexity is a priority.
My experience includes listening to many presenters and reading many opinion pieces where the presentation or opinion is aimed just a little above the ability of their audience or readers to gain the insight or practical knowledge they are seeking. This style can be seen as intentional. It is interesting to ask such a presenter a question starting with ‘how’ or ‘how much’ or ‘how often’: replies are usually ’why’ and ‘why not’ – giving nothing practical to inform or assist the questioner. Many opinion writers or professional journal authors frequently write ‘about’ something, rather than informing readers on ‘how’, ‘how much’ or ‘how often’. This renders their opinion or article of little practical use to their reader.
Another example is people who frequently speak in acronyms, technical or professional jargon, or consistently ‘in the abstract’. I’d put all of these styles under the heading of ‘complexity for the sake of complexity’. After listening to a researcher on one occasion constantly refer to KPIs in his presentation, I asked a question about measures and targets for each KPI. The response displayed a complete lack of knowledge or understanding of what a KPI represents (Key Performance Indicators), and certainly a lack of appreciation that an indicator is useless without the means of measurment and targets which may include schedules, costs or savings. The acronym was used to emphasise complexity!
One tool that I’ve found extremely useful in making the connection between complexity and simplicity is best explained through the following example. I simply refer to this tool as the 3-level hierarchy:
- first level = quality factor or critical success factor,
- second level = components which together comprise the quality factor or critical success factor, and
- third level = elements which together comprise each component.
The first level is descriptive: the second level useful; and the third level is measurable. The first level can be presented as complex (or confusing), with simplicity (ie clarity and usefulness) increasing from the second to third levels. The beauty of this tool is that you can start with the third level (start with simplicity), as easily as you can start with the first level (start with complexity). Knowing and understanding this tool enables one to recognize instantly whether a presenter or opinion writer even knows that there is more than the first level!
I only know this tool as ‘the 3-level hierarchy’, which I learned in my valuable and brief connection with the Software Engineering Institute in 1997. The value for me was that I then understood what I had been doing naturally – and which I learned to do as partner in the family precision engineering business during the 1970s.
I have since applied this tool to a wide range of activities in my long years of consulting and writing, including:
- preparing – and assessing – tenders and quotes;
- quality assurance and control;
- risk management;
- project development, management and evaluation;
- research projects;
- governance and management;
- strategic and business planning;
- financial projections and planning;
- performance management;
- performance monitoring and measuring; and
- preparing – and assessing – submissions and grant applications.
I welcome any enquires or discussion about the difference and relationship between complexity and simplicity – and hope this brief article is useful. For a practical example, this is how I apply the 3-level hierarchy to Making Ethics Work:
1. 3-level Hierarchy, defined as:
- Level 1 – a definition
- Level 2 – a set of components, each of which is an identity in its own right and which, together, comprise the agreed definition
- Level 3 – a set of elements for each component – the elements enable each component to be recognised, monitored, costed, measured and evaluated for effectiveness
Application of the 3-level Hierarchy to Making Ethics Work:
Level 1 – ‘Ethics’ is defined to demonstrate its contribution to credibility, clarity and certainty in a specific SME or Nonprofit workplace – through a collaborative process,
This needs to be a clear and practical definition, agreed by the persons who will be accountable and responsible for drafting, approving, resourcing, introducing, managing and monitoring a Code of Ethics – and ensuring sustained, effective and measurable adherence/compliance
Level 2 – a set of Components is identified that together comprise the agreed Level 1 Definition of ‘Ethics’ in concrete terms – these can be likened to performance indicators
Level 3 – a set of Elements that can each be recognised and measured is then identified for each Level 2 Component – these can be likened to performance measures