Are you a Complicator or a Simplifier?

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated” — Confucius

Executive Summary

This article touches on the two most popular jargons in today’s management journals, complexity and simplicity, and addresses them from the human behavior angle of why “complexity thrives in organizations” and why “simplicity has such a hard time making itself noticed”. It also expands on the characteristic behaviors of the Complicators and Simplifiers and some of the root causes behind these behaviors.

Why are organizations suffering from complexity?

Most Management gurus will agree that complexity is one of the top ailments of any organization which holds back from maximizing shareholder value. The key reasons behind the complexity-linked-ailment can be attributed to:

  1. Lack of Management Commitment and Accountability
  2. Multiple reporting lines leading to alignment conflicts and gaps
  3. Conflicts of Interests across functions within organizations
  4. Mixed Value propositions — trying to be everything to everyone
  5. Organizational bias towards rewarding complexity

What are the Characteristics of Complicators Vs Simplifiers?

How does it feel like working with Complicators?

Complicators take complex situations and multiply the complexity (“Mountain out of a molehill”). People who interact with Complicators can end up feeling annoyed, under-appreciated and very confused about the next steps since Complicators are more focused on raising complications — not necessarily solving them. Complicators are often a negative force. They are quite effective at using buzzwords, complex jargon and policy mumbo-jumbo to lead a discussion towards more confusion than towards a solution.

How does it feel like working with Simplifiers?

Simplifiers take complex situations and summarize them to their essence using simple, straightforward terms — “Fifth grader terms” as some would call it. They solve the problems and help guide steps needed to improve a situation. Simplifiers are calming, clarifying and provide focus. When working with Simplifiers people often feel energized, confident and optimistic. However, life is not easy for the Simplifiers because in many cases they have to swim against the current and as Steve Jobs aptly put it “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Why do Complicators act the way they do ?

As mentioned in the comparison chart — the driving forces that drive complicators are very much around self-focused empire building, delaying the solution delivery and increasing the overall complexity in the organization. However the world we live in — there is a strong human bias towards putting a higher value to things which are complex (exceptions apart). I am reminded of this great quotation from the Dutch Scientist and one of the founding fathers of computer programming, Edsger W. Dijkstra, “Simplicity is a great virtue but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse: complexity sells better.

Do organizations reward Complicators? Yes — mostly

One of the theories on why complicators flourish in organizations is that, in a very indirect sense, “organizations reward complexity”. A very simple (but taboo) example of this would the typical remuneration approach towards evaluating pay-grades of employees which has a very strong correlation to how complex the role is: # countries, # people, # processes, # systems, # variations, # products, # brands, # outlets, #customers. This indirectly drives employees away from reducing the complexity and drives them, in a very selfish but human way, towards increasing complexity.

Are you a Complicator or a Simplifier?

This is a question that every person should ask themselves and the key to answering the question is to keep the shareholder value in mind when answering the question. If you do find that you have shades of being a Complicator — it is never too late to adopt what Leonardo Vinci called “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

The opinions expressed here are author’s personal opinions and do not represent the view of his past/current employer(s).