Complex Y — How to use simplicity as a superpower.

July 14, 2022
6 min read
Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash
“No problem is so complicated that you cannot make it more complicated.”
— Andy Grove

A senior executive once told me, with pride, “we run a complex business.”

I smiled to be polite. On the inside, I winced. An angel wept.

The business in question was and is one of the biggest brands in the world, with millions of customers and a global footprint. The pride wasn’t in making a complex business simple for all stakeholders; the pride was in being able to operate and execute in that business despite its complexity.

Most people know complex and complicated are different. Those people also know alligators and crocodiles are different. Press them further, though, and they find the two difficult to separate. They’re big, ferocious things that can chew you up, and you’d best stay away from them. I’m talking about the alligators and the crocodiles, obviously, not complexity and complicated.

Words matter.

What that executive really meant was “we run a complicated business.” Meaning it has many moving parts and components; with no attempt to reduce the high level of difficulty or effort in getting things done, for employees or customers.

If that executive ran a complex business, simplicity would be an obsession. The number of moving parts may not reduce, and the attention to detail would remain the same, but the effort in navigating work reduces dramatically. This obsession with simplicity is transformative, especially in business transformations. Bob Toohey, CHRO of Allstate, puts it like this, “all transformations are about getting better. They are also about people. That means everything needs to be simple. Life doesn’t get better when we make things harder.”

Know your enemy.

Complication is a villain. He creeps into businesses as they grow and works himself into the seams: weighing down processes and sucking the energy out of people. 

Over time, the unwitting call him Complexity. He grows, powered by the law of entropy, and becomes part of your culture. Complexity teams with other monsters: Jargon, Runaround, and Status Quo.

Simplicity is a leadership superpower.

Leaders recognize Complexity and know his true name. They have a superpower of their own to fight with: simplicity.

Simplicity is a leadership superpower that comes with awareness and practice.

Are you aware?

Have you let Complication in?

Look at the last email you sent. 

Ask yourself: would an eight-year-old understand it? Would your significant other? They’re not, I assume, unintelligent people.

But you have probably been lulled over time by Complexity. In a trance, you’re not aware of what you’re doing: Terms of art; Acronyms; Long, run-on sentences.

You might use “weasel words” like the classic “synergy” or “empower.” Or my particular nails-on-chalkboard-er “utilize.”

Do you strive for perfection? Do you cover all the bases, just in case? Are you a what-about-er?  “What happens on a rainy Tuesday, surrounded by flying pigs?” Are you prepared for that? Do you have a backup plan for the blue moon?

Complexity has snuck in.

This is not a compliment.

“You know too much, and you are too passionate about it.”

Knowing a lot, and being passionate, might seem like heroic qualities to you. To others, they are a gateway for Complication.

Don’t make them think.

Clean up your processes.

When Complication gets into your process, he’s invisible. Or, if you see him, you nod proudly at Complexity.

Your process is like this remote control.

Worse, how you speak about your process, onboard people to it, or govern your process is like this “simple” user guide.

For comparison, this is a similar user guide from the instruction manual for nuclear engineers.

To be fair, the nuclear power plant instruction manual runs to a few more pages.

This is how people use your process; it’s all people want from your process, and it’s all people need from your process.

Eventually, you rework your process after work, trial, and tears. You know you’ve cracked it when the user manual becomes a diagram like this.

Complication is vanquished. Apply the same method to your product, business area, or function.

The laws of simplicity.

John Maeda wrote the book on simplicity. In exploring the intersection of design, technology, business and life, he outlined ten laws.

For me, the first three are a starting point. Law 1/ Reduce, is a reframe in your thinking, instead of asking, “how complex does this have to be?” ask, “how simple can I make this?”

Law 2/ Organize, is about grouping. How do I bucket this stuff in a way that makes sense? Makes it easy to consume?

Law 3/ Time, is a convenient method of measuring simplicity. Does it take longer? It’s likely more complex. Is it quicker? You have started to conquer Complexity.

But, Maeda cautions, simplicity isn’t everything. To illustrate this, he uses the example of cookies and laundry. Show a child a big cookie and a small cookie; which would they likely want? The big cookie. 

Show that same child a big pile of laundry and a small pile, and ask, “which would they rather fold?” it’s the small one. This is at the heart of his laws. “You know, when you want more, it’s because you want to enjoy it. When you want less, it’s because it’s about work.”

Here’s a hard truth. People don’t want more of your process, your product (unless it’s cookies), your business area, your function.

How do you discover your superpower?

Don’t worry; you don’t need to look for a radioactive spider. You do though, need to practice

Maeda’s colleague at Everbridge, David Starmer is the Chief Transformation Officer. He advocates, “Instead of trying to ‘add in’ simplicity, you need to actively ‘take out’ complexity.” 

Good advice. I recommend you start taking out complexity here.

Work in threes.

The rule of three gives you a target for Maeda’s Law 1, and builds off Law 2. Give people three choices. For yourself, don’t try and manage more than three active projects at a time. Group things into threes.

It’s all to do with working memory. While some people can manage prodigious feats of memory, most of us start to peter out after three. It’s why a phone number is grouped into three parts. It’s why tip buttons on point-of-sale readers have three options. It’s why small working teams can generally outperform larger teams.

Don’t make people think.

In a sentence, design thinking is this: Build from the consumer’s point of view, not yours.

This is something we practice with a tool called a T-leaf. It’s a way to speak to your audience's listening and make sure you have their attention. Naturally, it has three parts, asking how does your audience feel? What do they want to know? And what might they do?

Write better.

This piece of advice is either obvious or genius. More distributed work means more emphasis on grabbing attention and telling a story. The art of communication and persuasion. 

Writing well allows you to clearly communicate ideas. Putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, takes an idea from fuzzy to clear. An old professor once told me, “you [and your idea] only get to rigor if you write it down.

Editing removes the clutter.

If you want to be a better speaker, first, be a better writer. If you want to communicate better, write better. This is not advice to write the next great American novel, but it is advice to read.

Practice simplicity in your writing. Add some zest. See what persuades you. It could be microcopy on a website. Understand that it is not a PowerPoint slide overloaded with bullets. If it doesn’t persuade you, if it doesn’t grab your attention, why would you think it will work for someone else.

You are discovering your leadership superpower.

Complication is quivering in the corner.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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