Complexity, continued

I got some pushback on my definition of complexity–people thought I oversimplified it. Through discussion, there were good points made.

People trying to protect their jobs is NOT the most common cause of unnecessary complexity. Often, people are asked to do things with little help or training, and they do the best they can in the time given. Often this leads to a hack or patch just to get the item off the table, and these build up. In programming, this is called technical debt, a debt that must be paid down with hard, often boring, work. In management, this often happens when fixing a problem in the short-term, for example assigning an employee to a new manager rather than addressing the root problem. In accounting, the word “allocation” leads down a twisted path of complexity: if you begin allocating costs to other areas within the company to help with job or product costing, you’re creating unnecessary complexity. The approach taken by Eli Goldratt in The Goal and subsequent books was revolutionary in its simplicity, not in its new idea.

I’ve created unnecessary complexity in projects I’ve tackled by not seeing the elegant way to solve a problem. When people are tasked with something over their heads, the solution they come up with is often impressively complex. In these situations, the history turns into baggage, weighing down the person mired in the problem.

Probably the most common form of complexity is completely human, the swirling mixture of pride, failure, honor, success, jealousy, personality, and relationships that form anytime people are together. This political complexity happens in all organizations, and it is the rare company that can avoid all of the negative ramifications of it.

Where it becomes dishonest, in my eyes, is when given a truly better way to solve the problem, the maintainer of the system refuses to even contemplate it. You must be willing to examine the complexity you have created and that you have allowed others to create around you. And you must be willing to tackle the complexity through hard work and clear thinking to avoid allowing the entire system to grind to a halt.

Honest Complexity

Dishonest complexity happens when you make things more complex to protect your job. IT technicians can do this and get away with it. Accountants can too. Lone programmers often do this as well. Its easy for doctors, pharmacists, dentists and other highly-educated workers to make this happen. Making something more complex than it needs to be, with no documentation, can seem to guarantee your position as the one-and-only expert in the pool.

Honest complexity is forced on you by the system in which you exist. Accountants live in a world of honest complexity, where the tax code created by the US government is as complex a beast as you’ll find. Similarly, an employee working in a highly charged political environment, where authority isn’t clear and motives go unspoken must deal with human complexity.

Dishonest complexity nearly always surfaces, because the person who created it eventually is faced with somebody more experienced that is willing to call the bluff. Honest complexity, however, is harder to deal with. You must model it in your company or software or process, and oversimplifying is rash. In a world of honest complexity, guiding visions and strategies that speak of the future light of simplicity that shall prosper in the land of milk and honey are as likely to stop people from learning what’s necessary as they are to motivate them onward.

Make a distinction between the complexities in your life. Cut out the gangrene with a sharp knife, and put your head down and learn what you must without complaint.

A system’s ability to learn

Learning is not strictly an individual human’s job. It is also the job of the system in which they work. There’s examples of computer algorithms that learn from experience, some with more success then others. My favorite algorithm is the auto-correct on my iPhone, that allows my thumbs to flail about with wild abandon and still get the word right 80% of the time. “Yje” changes to “The” and “Tenecka” changes to “Rebecka”. It learns from you, from the way you correct words, and from the other words your phone has access to.

A learning system is more impressive when it is not just one computer or one person, but when it is a group of people working with a good system. Part of a company’s culture is the collective knowledge of their domain, the ability to access the people and information that will help solve hard problems. In fact, every group of people learns over time, simply by working on similar problems and talking about it with one another. But there are some that are fantastically better than others.

Take, for example, Xerox Parc, that legendary research center that developed the computer mouse, ethernet, object-oreinted programming, laser printers, and a host of other things. They did this at one campus, over a period of approximately 10 years. How? Was it simply that they hired superstars, put them down in an office, and asked them to think? It was more, as Malcom Gladwell argues, that they were creative people who were asked to work in a creative environment. And creative environments are learning environments, environments where people can see and talk about and think of other disciplines. They’re environments where heated debate is encouraged, and intelligence and book learning are as sexy as a new truck or a trophy buck.

But Xerox Parc is not a long-ago fantasy that cannot be replicated. No, learning and creativity and energy can be created in any system, provided you give it room. Take a single step in that direction in your company, and start to write down small lessons that you learn and email them to everyone. Perhaps it’s an interesting conversation with a customer, perhaps its a new idea of how to put something together, perhaps its a productivity tip you leaned from Twitter. You can eventually take it a step further and use a knowledge repository of some kind, or get software that does the heavy lifting for you. But it is irresponsible of you to believe that nobody would be interested in what you know, and it is critical to the health of your company that the systems you live in and create and work with can learn and improve.