I’m always hearing the word “complex” these days. People are always telling me situations are complex, or technology is complex, or business is complex. I get to feeling pretty overwhelmed, if not downright inadequate. How can I ever figure things out and keep up with what’s going on?
We live in a culture fascinated with complexity, we often think complexity is a sign of genius and we often think something isn’t worth much if it isn’t complex. I want to go on record in my capacity as an occasional contrarian and say that complexity is NOT a sign of value or of advanced technology or of genius. Complexity is actually the sign of an incompletely solved problem or an incompletely understood situation.
I think about times when people use the word complex to describe something; I think about the times when even I resort to the use of that word and my motives for doing so. It seems we mostly use the word when we want to create a smokescreen to cover our own lack of understanding. This is much like what ancient geographers used to do when trying to draw maps of parts of the earth they didn’t know anything about. In those areas on their maps they would draw in mythical creatures or state, “There be dragons here.”
Things could not possibly be as complex as some people want us to believe. I know this because of what I call the “Theory of the Regular Guy”. This theory observes that most of us folks who make the world work are just regular guys and in spite of that most things work pretty well most of the time. So, through deductive reasoning, the theory goes on to state that, ipso facto (that’s Latin for “therefore”), things really are not so complex, because if they were, all us regular folks couldn’t keep up and everything would be falling apart.
Things can always be made to work better, but that does not mean they need to become more complex. Complexity is the result of cleverness but not genius. All you need in order to create complexity is an advanced degree (I’m afflicted with such a degree myself). We humans love to show our cleverness with mind boggling displays of complexity. But this is not to be confused with true genius.
True genius occurs when people are able to probe beneath the surface of situations and see the simple patterns that underlie them. Those simple underlying patterns are the building blocks that combine and recombine in different ways and create what we see as complexity in situations. Real genius occurs when a new insight is discovered that gives us greater understanding and control. And these new insights always have the quality of elegant simplicity (but not just simple-mindedness).
I know this from the example of a guy who really was a genius. This guy was a clerk in a government patent office when he came up with an elegantly simple equation to describe how the physical world works. Many very clever people had written many complicated books about the subject. But he thought about the situation and simply wrote “E = mc2” (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared).
The good news in the theory of the regular guy is this: we don’t have to believe all those people who tell us everything is so complex; if it was so complex we wouldn’t be able to do all the things we do. We all have an element of genius in us; and if we use it, we can absolutely keep us and even thrive as business and technology continue to change at the rapid pace now driven by our global economy.
Complexity is an illusion created by the many combinations of simple patterns that underlie every situation. When we take a deep breath and stay calm and start probing beneath the surface, the simple underlying patterns do start to emerge. I may not be genius enough to reach the level of profound simplicity that the clerk in the patent office reached, but I can follow his example and at least head in the right direction.