Complexity Is Just An Excuse


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There is no question, our worlds are very complex. The challenges our customers face are complex. The challenges we face within our organizations are complex. The challenges in engaging our customers and trying to solve their problems are complex. Complexity is a reality!

We’re surrounded by, enmeshed in and consumed by complexity. Sometimes, I think we revel in complexity, “Real men (and women) do complex stuff! It takes a tough man (and woman) to solve tough problems! Simplicity is for weenies!”

But then someone comes along and disrupts all of that. It’s a hot start-up, someone with a new idea. The world turns upside down.

Why didn’t we think of that? It seems so simple, so obvious! We can do the same—usually followed by a rush of people copying, perhaps improving.

Sometimes, I think we use complexity as an excuse. Sometimes, I think we use complexity as a place to hide. Sometimes, we make problems unsolvable, because of the complexity with which we address them. (The physicist in me says we are trying to solve for too many variables simultaneously.)

It’s easy to see how this happens, particularly in large organizations. We become enmeshed in the way we have always done things, legacy products, processes, tools, rules, methods, thinking, habits, attitudes, belief systems. We become prisoners of our own experiences–not able to escape them, letting them constrain the way we see things, approach things and solve problems.

It’s not so much that people in start-ups are so much smarter than us, it’s just they aren’t encumbered by all the baggage we carry with us.

They start from a much simpler place. A single idea. A question or point of view. A single problem they feel compelled to solve.

We don’t solve problems through complexity even though the problems may be very complex. Complexity is not a friend to innovation or creativity. Complexity is the enemy of performance improvement.

I’ve been pushing the concept of Radical Simplification for some time. Radical simplification is neither simple nor easy. It requires great clarity, focus, and purposefulness. It requires us to address very complex and tough issues, but by removing complexities we may impose on the problem solving process. The process of simplifying may mean we have to change a lot of what we do–past habits, beliefs, attitudes, processes, and methods. They may prevent us from seeing what we could be seeing, they may be restricting our ability to improve. There may be some “sacred cows,” that restrain us. “We’ve always done things this way.”

If you see yourself getting bogged down. If change and improvement is becoming glacially slow. If customers aren’t responding. If competitors are growing much faster. If you are spending more time in internal discussion, rather than with the customer, solving their problems, then maybe you are, unconsciously reveling in complexity or using it as an excuse.

Look outside–spend time in your customers shoes, look at it from their point of view. Or look at other organizations—not those in your industry or your competitors–they’re just as trapped as you. Look in another industry or market, not one that’s adjacent–one that’s very different. Look at how they address similar problems. Pay attention to someone who is asking the “stupid questions,” they may see what you don’t. When you are tempted to respond, “You don’t understand….” realize that may they do and it’s you that doesn’t understand.

Complexity is just an excuse.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Dave: I liked your point about becoming prisoners of our own experiences. This idea was explored by fellow-physicist Eli Goldratt, which I wrote about in a blog a while back, I’m not Against Change, I Just Like My Pain. As business development professionals, we encounter this situation frequently. “Enterprise system? Why we’re doing pretty well with these Excel spreadsheets! I haven’t heard anyone complaining.” Actually, it’s pretty amazing what people and companies cobble together and how they get by.

    I liked your idea about radical simplification – the same amazement I have when I see every day objects, re-engineered to their structural essence, and how amazingly well they work. Some of these are showcased in an exhibition about applied design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York:

  2. Andy, thanks for the great comment to expand on these ideas. I really like the concept of the “essence.” When we see these in nature, engineering, art–the clarity and function is immediately obvious.

    One experiences both amazement and great understanding.

    Seems we could begin to approach these same concepts in Sales and Marketing.


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