On simplicity beyond complexity

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. – E. F. Schumacher

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. – Oliver Wendell Holmes

These quotes frame the two siren calls that leaders must ignore as they navigate complex situations. They must avoid settling for either complexification or premature simplicity.

There is great power in simplicity. By eliminating the chaff, getting down to the kernel of some issue, a leader can guide a team to achieve beyond expectations. But separating the two takes time and often requires deep understanding and insight. A leader who skips this effort and latches onto the chaff can drive an incredibly expensive waste of organizational energy.

Unfortunately, premature simplification often sells well. Especially to an audience that fails to comprehend, or worse, wants to deny, the complexity at hand. It offers a terrific ROI on the surface, as such simplicity requires less investment in the creation process and is typically easier for an audience to consume. But that ROI model assumes the objective is to sell the audience, not honestly address whatever larger issue is being faced.

Of course, not all audiences are swayed by simplicity. Instead they are enthralled by complexity and comforted by multi-syllabic specialist verbosity. This is the air so many academics, bureaucrats and consultants breathe, as they repeatedly deliver fifty slides/pages/pounds/hours of summary materials. They fail to heed Albert Einstein's admonition that a lack of simple explanation signals a lack of full understanding.

A leader must aim to take her stakeholders through to that simplicity on the other side of the complexity. Past the easy sound bite stage. Past the sloppy mess of complexification. The goal should be the clarity that lies beyond.

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