A Technique for Combating Complexity

Jeff Gardner
Nov 19, 2018 · 6 min read

Some days are light and fluid, progress pours forth naturally and bountifully. Solutions to all the problems you face are easy. Other days are all pain and suffering; head banging against the wall, zero discernible progress. We all face complex, ambiguous problems from time to time. Knowing how to deal with them gracefully is a learned skill like any other. Let’s explore a few ways to think about complexity and how you can approach your hardest problems more elegantly.

The universe is a non-linear system

There are very few things that can actually be described in a linear way in nature. So much so that much of science and mathematics is built around approximating non-linear systems using linear models. And let’s not even start on business, where the “intuition” of a CEO can override all the data in the world.

Our brains can easily grasp changing one variable at a time. We can even reason through how those changes might play our over a period of time. But, to reuse a great analogy, the difference between linear and non-linear systems is like the difference between predicting the path of a tennis ball thrown from a moving bike vs the path of a paper airplane thrown from the same bike.

While the same variables and complex systems work against the tennis ball and the paper airplane, the airplane’s smaller mass means that it will be proportionally more effected than the tennis ball. So much so that it’s nearly impossible, even for the most powerful computers in the world, to predict in real-time what will happen when you let go of the paper airplane.

You are that paper airplane. A minute speck of dust in a vast and ever changing universe. There are literally billions of variables, constantly changing, all around you. And even if we leave those billions of extrinsic variables out, you are still equipped with one of the most poorly understood and yet capable computers in existence, your brain. We know a lot about how the brain works and yet, that knowledge is dwarfed by the amount that we simply don’t know. We can’t concretely say exactly how memory works, or how you learn new skills, or where creativity comes from.

Face it, the deck of life is stacked against you.

Thinking linearly keeps us alive

Now that I’ve thoroughly crushed your hopes with the hammer of the universe’s complexity it’s probably a good time to also remind you that the very nature of how we handle that complexity is why human’s have survived as long as we have. Our brain’s ability to take overwhelming complexity and distill it into something more simple is perhaps our greatest strength.

No one can calculate fluid dynamics in their head while watching a paper airplane fly through the air but we generally know that the airplane will trace an erratic path and eventually end up on the ground. We also know that if we’re paying too much attention to the plane while we’re still traveling forward on the bike we’re likely to end up injured, or worse.

In fact, in all likelihood our senses are actually lying to us. Showing us far less than what is actually around us. But it’s exactly these sorts of simplifications and split second calculations that help us move through life without being completely overwhelmed.

Enough science! How do I solve my hard problem?

There are two things that I’ve found that will significantly improve your ability to cut through a complex problem and reach a solution. It’s a touch counter-intuitive so bear with me.

1. Cultivate mindfulness and awareness

If you haven’t heard of mindfulness at this stage you’ve been living under a rock. Welcome back to society. It’s mostly good, but we have a problem with guns and nationalism at the moment. Cultivating a mindfulness practice goes beyond just the undeniable psychological and health benefits. Mindfulness is the gateway to awareness. How many times have you arrived home after a tough day at work and had no recollection of your commute home? It’s an awful feeling to have the sense that you’re going through life on autopilot. Having the ability to exist in the present moment–not the past or the future–allows you to be an active observer of everything that is happening around you. Taking in more information, from many diverse sources is important to the next step.

2. Be patient

All that extra information most likely won’t be put to immediate use. It’s filed away in the deep recesses of your brain. But what your brain does next can really only be described as magic. It will start to look for connections. Some obvious, some completely abstract. This happens subconsciously, much of it while you sleep (yet another reason to get more sleep!).

Patience here is key because it’s impossible for us to really understand this process. We know that information goes in and through this magic spell we call creativity new ideas come out. But it is also this process that is responsible for so many shower breakthroughs. You’re relaxed, you’re alone with your thoughts (and without your phone), and all those connections that your brain has been quietly churning away on finally snap together into a coherent and very concrete idea of what you need to do next.

One important thing to note: You should not completely drop the project you’re stuck on in the name of “being patient”. Some degree of groping around in the dark is necessary. Spending time taking wrong turns, especially early on in a project, helps you to find and define the edges of the problem space. Continue investing time into your project in a constructive way. Not all day, every day but certainly some time, every day.

Photo by Diz Play on Unsplash

I have not failed 1,000 times. I have
successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.

– Thomas Edison

How do you know when you’ve got it?

In some disciplines it’s easy to know when you have an objectively correct answer. You’re able to write a valid proof to support your hypothesis. In other disciplines, and certainly this is true of nearly all problems in business, there is no objective way to prove your answer is truly correct.

Situations like these beg the question: How do you know when you’ve got the best possible solution? I use a few techniques to help here:

Dealing with complexity and ambiguity is a privilege. We should all feel lucky that we get to work on problems where the answers aren’t known. Where we’re not simply told what to do and how to do it. But it can be tough to remember that when you’re facing down a tight deadline and a particularly thorny problem. Hopefully you find these tactics helpful. If you’ve got other methods you swear by, let me know in the comments below. 🙏

Jeff Gardner

Written by

American living in Italy. Head of Platform Partnerships @intercom. Musing on the outdoors, technology, and lifelong learning.

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