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How to turn complex into simple

23 October 2018

By Camilla Smith

I’m certain we’ve all witnessed (or been guilty of) overcomplicating how we approach what we do in every walk of life - and especially in our working life.    

We’ve all given/received an overcomplicated brief for example, with a long list of objectives to hit, goals to achieve, and multiple challenges to overcome with a limited budget. 

Equally, to hand over an over-egged response in a form of long-winded strategy with a list of channels, mediums, messages etc. the length of your arm is so easy to do. 

But why…?

Put simply: getting to simple is REALLY HARD! 

It’s much easier to include everything so that we ensure we ‘cover all bases.’ 

Why is simplification so damned hard?

Let's start with why simplification is so difficult.

The French mathematician, writer and philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote a letter to a friend and right at the end, he wrote: “I apologise for writing you a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write you a short one’.

The point is, to get to simple, we first need to embrace the complex and see the whole picture, before we can then whittle down to what this means in its simplest form. And this takes time, consideration and brainpower. It’s easier to write something longer than it is to create a shorter, abridged version. 

To illustrate this point, the world-famous, TED conference stipulates that every TED talk should be 18 minutes or less in length, absolutely no longer. And that’s one of the key reasons behind the format’s success. 

Tony Robbins, life coach and psychologist, joked once that he found the 18-minute rule extra challenging because his shortest seminar was 50 hours! 

TED curator Chris Anderson explains:

“By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say.


What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect.


It brings discipline”.

Why do we overcomplicate?

There are several reasons why we, as humans, overcomplicate things. In my experience, these are:

- Lack of true understanding / knowledge: In the words of Albert Einstein; “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” 

- Lack of time: It takes TIME to understand complexity and digest all elements in order to simplify your end outcome. 

- Fear of getting it wrong: It’s easier to follow a familiar route, rather than one less followed, and is an easy bet in front of your colleagues and peers. 

- Perception of eliminating risk: By creating simple, we’re putting our ‘necks on the line’ if something goes wrong. We haven’t ‘covered all bases’ and so may feel at risk of blame or failure.

Why overcomplication can be so damaging

Complexity can kill people's ability to innovate, adapt, and really be flexible.

I recently read Farrah Storr’s new book, The Discomfort Zone, where she describes working as editor for the UK’s edition of Women’s Health magazine back in 2012. 

She worked with a small team of only three, and with very limited budgets, people-power, and time. Because of this, they had to be agile and work on their feet to achieve results.

And they did - by keeping what they did simple, timely and innovative. 

Their lack of resources forced them to be wildly creative and think of things in a different way, for example, how to illustrate their stories. They couldn’t afford to be conventional. 

Because convention was expensive and long-winded.

So, what were considered their disadvantages, turned in to their advantage. 

We often find that disrupters into any market can follow the ‘David and Goliath’ effect, whereby their agile, fast thinking allows them to overtake their more complicated, cumbersome opponents. 

How can we start to simplify our thinking?

Some methods that help with simplification:

- Use visualisation tools – visualising the problem can help to untangle complexity and encourage you to ask questions you hadn’t considered. For example, physically drawing the problem may re-frame it in your mind and can reveal what you hadn’t seen or notice before.

- Drop the business jargon - buzzwords often give the illusion of high-level thinking but actually provide very little and can often over-complicate. Strip back your language and keep it simple. Simple doesn’t mean stupid. 

- Embrace ‘creative innocence’ – set aside notions of your expertise, recognise any biases, and approach the situation as a child would do! 

- Thinking modes – open up different ways of thinking. Come up with several different ways a problem can be solved. 

- Step back – and consider everything (the bigger picture). From here, you can hone in on the parts that really matter and use these to start to simplify the complex.

Creating simple is hard.

But it will give you the competitor advantage.

By simplifying your approach, you can start to create meaningful work, using good creative, clear objectives and work that is fresh, innovative and exciting. 

If you make the time to make things simple, your customers will thank you. 

My reading list

  • Nonsense, Jamie Holmes - 
    • Confusion—that uncomfortable mental place—has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way.
  • Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt -  
    • Helps you to avoid bad strategy by offering straightforward approaches to overcoming them.

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