Thursday, February 22, 2018

Simplicity vs Complexity

Simplicity versus complexity is one of the great paradoxes of modern life. Many of us are confronted with greater and greater levels of complexity as our horizons and access to knowledge expand. We are faced with questions of how we can embrace challenges without being simplistic. As we strive for more and better options, we produce proliferation and incrementalism instead of focus and wholeness. We capture more “benefits” but we don’t adequately account for the hidden costs that go undetected and unmanaged.

As we discussed in our last post about the Problems with the Rational Model , a reductionist approach will inevitably lead to more complexity, not simplicity. In many cases, complexity will lead to a loss of reliability or robustness. True systems thinking will seek to reverse this complexity by focusing an integrated whole and an umabiguous understanding of needs (priorities) and functions (outcomes). With adequate focus in these areas, we can gain much robustness in our approach to life and work. Robustness is a measure being strong and healthy in condition. When it is viewed in a system context, it refers to the ability of tolerating perturbations that might affect the system’s functional integrity.

Take a real world example from the airline industry. After deregulation of the US airlines in the late-1970’s and early-1980’s, the domestic carriers all analyzed and decided that a hub-and-spoke network would become the most efficient operating model. This was done primarily from a cost/revenue perspective, although other factors like customer access and reliability were probably analyzed, but likely not weighted heavily. This resulted in larger hubs developing around large cities. In addition several waves of domestic airline mergers have ensued in the intervening 40 years, resulting in yet fewer and larger hubs. These hubs have become extremely complex operations that are extremely sensitive to upsets that threaten a particular lines entire system (with ripple effects across the whole air travel system). Many of these hubs like Dallas-Ft. Worth, Chicago and Atlanta are subject to severe weather impacts which further reduces reliability and robustness. So now to travel from Huntsville, Alabama to Salt Lake City, one may need to be aware of the weather in Dallas or Chicago. It has also resulted in capacity issues in most major cities, and in many, single airline hegemony that is not the most effective to the traveler.

So do we just give in to complexity, or do we allow it to sneak up on us? In Overcomplicated complexity theorist Sam Arbesman gives two primary reasons of how complexity can be sneaky. “The first is accretion. We build systems, like the U.S. Constitution or the Internet, to perform a limited number of tasks. Yet to get those systems to scale, we need to build on top of them to expand their initial capabilities. As the system gets larger, it gets more complex. The second factor is interaction. We may love the simplicity of our iPhones, but we don't want to be restricted to its capabilities alone. So we increase its functionality by connecting it to millions of apps. Those apps, in turn, connect to each other as well as to other systems.” Boom! Complexity reigns and in many cases, the original purpose of these instruments is lost on the user.

So we need to find a way to reign in complexity, while focusing on what really matters. Unity in purpose has to carry more value than more and/or better. We need to shift our thinking to connecting to what really matters and managing the real “costs” of too much.

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