Simple or complex? The dilemma

Lysanne Currie’s editorial in the April 2016 issue of “The Director”, entitled “Keeping it Simple”, cites a TED talk by Harvard’s Professor George Whitesides, highlighting that the vast majority of people crave simplicity, and it’s mainly academics who relish complexity and emergence.

The article goes on to promote strategic simplification as a strategy to achieve great results, pointing to Sacha Romanovitch of Grant Thornton as a leading example of its success. My personal experience of this was at Centrica, where they executed a complete U-turn from acquiring multiple brands and business to divesting the AA, Goldfish and One.Tel UK to focus on British Gas.

This doesn’t mean being simplistic in your thinking, though. Churchill famously apologised for writing a long letter as he had no time to write a shorter one, and Lysanne quotes Steve Jobs; “Simple can be harder than complex. You have  to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple”.

Problems are often complex, and the reality only emerges with time and progressive analysis. The whole of Chaos Theory is about understanding how simplicity generates apparent complexity. When people are involved,  we need to add emotion, contrariness and sheer malice into the equation too.

Solutions are where the benefits of simplification really come in – solutions must be “sold” to, and applied by, many and so must be easy to communicate. Given most people’s need for simplicity, it becomes essential to present the solution as simple, even if it is complex.

There is a process here:

  • probe complexity and emergence during the investigation of the problem, to ensure you get your understanding right
  • invest time end effort to simplify the solution, making it robust
  • If the simple solution doesn’t match “the way we do things”, seriously consider changing the way things are done too

Trying to keep it simple throughout by simplifying the investigation and analysis of a problem creates a grave risk of getting it wrong. There is a sad trail of government initiatives that have had diametrically the opposite effect to that desired, not least government borrowing going UP under the last government.

Embrace complexity, but make it sound simple :o)



The Perils of Over-Simplicity

For a week or more I’ve been working on an insight that struck me after watching 22 episodes of “House M.D.” over a long weekend (I signed up for Netflix). Torben Rick’s article on how to hold people accountable uses the mnemonic SIMPLE, which triggered me to start writing. This isn’t the end, it isn’t even the beginning of the end, but at least it’s the end of the beginning.

So why am I preaching about over-simplicity – surely simplicity is a good thing? Well yes, I think so, if it is  genuine.

Simplicity has many great values:

  • People can understand simple things
  • People can do simple things
  • People can explain simple things to others, without difficulty

So what’s the problem?

This is where House comes in  – often reality isn’t simple.

What happens when people try to apply a simple model to a complex reality?

  • It doesn’t work
  • People are disappointed it doesn’t work
  • The people who tried are castigated for failing in a “simple ” task
  • The people who proposed trying to use the approach are castigated for the failure of their approach to solve a “simple” problem
  • Future attempts to tackle the problem are poisoned by the “we tried already and failed” mentality

I’ve been working with a group over the last 18 months to distil the essence of systems thinking and systems engineering, with project management disciplines, to produce am integrated model. It’s been an eye-opening experience to see two groups of experts wrestling first to undertand each other, then build a shared model, then make it simple enough.

Simple enough, not simple. This is not a simple field, which is why 20 of the UK’s top professionals in their fields are passionate about doing it (pro bono publico i.e. in their own time, for free), but they have to find the right point where it is simple enough to share understanding while complex enough to actually work.

So back to House; this is a programme centred on diagnosis and treatment – after 22 episodes on the diagnostic process I was really relating it to solving business problems, and drew up my process model for diagnosis and correction of business problems, based on 20 years experience. I noted that:

  • The classic “Deming” cycle for continuous improvement has 4 stages in 1 cycle
  • The DMAIC cycle from Six Sigma has 5 stages in 1 cycle
  • My model has 11 stages,  1 main cycle and 3 sub-cycles

I know mine works, but could I convince others to use it? I hear many stories of Deming and Six Sigma being tried and failing. Is this because they are applied to situations that are too complex for their simple models?

I do not run simple models down – I apply them when I can! Unfortunately the pressure for a quick win can cause management to grab at anything with good press, however, applying an over-simple model to a complex situation is just asking for failure.

Where does the vision stop?

One of the key ingredients of successful projects is effective leadership, and one of the primary tools of a good leader is the vision, that definition of where we want to get to and how we will know when we get there.The problem is that the vision can be too limited in its scope, too “broad brush” in its analysis and quite simply  not viable because people haven’t thought through the consequences.

One of the most valuable skills in the armoury of the successful project leaders is the impact assessment – “what will happen if we do this?” This is used heavily in change management and risk management, so should be finely honed in most project teams (!)

Impact assessing the vision can be very tough, but failure to do so can snatch failure from the jaws of victory.

When the Government decided in the 80s to force brewers to sell tied houses, so increasing the number of free houses and the demand for real ales, they were rather startled to find that the legislation had a completely contrary effect – half the brewers stopped brewing to run much larger chains of tied houses (bought from the other brewers) and bought all their beer from the few remaining big breweries. It has taken 30 years to recover from that piece of woolly thinking.

Barnes Wallis, a kind and gentle engineering genius, is reported to have been inconsolable when he found that 56 aircrew were missing in action having dropped his bouncing bombs in the famous Dambusters raid in 1943. His reaction to the 2000+ civilian deaths, including nearly 800 Ukrainian women workers in a labour camp near the Moehne dam, isn’t recorded.

When the modern state of Israel was born, no one seems to have thought through what would happen to the people already living there, and as a long-term consequence there seems no end to the slaughter of the innocents. The UK government has often had a policy of not negotiating with “Terrorists”, but one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In Ireland, there has twice been a cessation of hostilities between the UK and terrorists/freedom fighters – both times it has meant the UK government having the courage to set aside its policy of demonising “the other side” and doing what must be done – talk to the people most passionate about the wrongs they feel have been done to them. The first time led to a peace with what is now the Republic of Ireland, the second (“Good Friday agreement”) seems to have brought a degree of peace back to the North.

When setting out on a great project, it really helps to think through the vision, because if you don’t, you have to be utterly pragmatic in dealing with the consequences, to achieve a lasting solution.

Playing the numbers game is gambling

While away in Dubrovnik on a business trip, I came down with a bug that, 3 weeks later, has me in bed, feverish and coughing my lungs out.
Ok, I exaggerate, but it’s caused me to ponder about the the way we make decisions based on the weight of experience.

My experience is that throat infections are usually viral and clear up themselves with home treatment in 5 – 10 days, so I didn’t consult my GP until it still hadn’t cleared at 14 days.
Playing the numbers game meant I left it to the point I was uncomfortable based on my experience.
When I saw my GP, she assured me there was nothing that wouldn’t sort itself out without antibiotics. She was playing the numbers game based on her vast experience (but not of me, not having seen me for 15 years).
At first it looked like she was right, then my temperature sky rocketed,  I was shivering and sweating alternately and retired to bed.
Still playing the numbers game, I expected to improve in 2-3 days, but that took me into the weekend.
I finally abdicated decision making to a computer, dialled 111 and answered lots of questions set by my friends the NHS Direct Clinician Team in Bolton, and got booked in for an out of hours appointment. This time I’m expecting antibiotics and will not accept the  numbers game.

This echoes a related diagnostics experience on holiday in the summer, when my normally reliable car developed a nasty whining sound under the bonnet. I took it into a nearby Honda dealer, where the expert, without rising from his seat, assured me it was X and that it was safe to ignore until I got home. It proved to be something completely different, affecting the steering. Another diagnosis he gave so confidently about another minor problem proved to be equally wrong. Playing the numbers game meant he scored 0 out of 2.

People, cars and projects are all complex, and playing the numbers game is something we all indulge it to save time and effort, but it has to be recognized that it is taking a risk, and therefore must be managed as such.

In the project context, playing the numbers is making assumptions, and we all know that “assume” makes an ass of u and me.

I’m glad that Cliff who fixes my car is thorough, diligent and trustworthy – he fixed what was really broken, not what experience suggested.
I’m hoping to get my bacterial secondary infection treated today, unlike a friend’s wife whose TB was misdiagnosed as asthma for 2 years until she found a specialist unit who would look again.

Only play the numbers game if you really have no option.