Complexity means different things to different people in different conversations. Are we trying to simplify a process? Complexity is bad. Understand a supply chain? Complexity is good. Don't buzzword your initiatives with "complexity" until you get a wee bit more specific.
Buzzwords are interesting little beasts. When used correctly, they can accelerate discussions and facilitate decisions. The prose equivalent of data compression, buzzwords & acronyms are a convenient shorthand for big ideas, building blocks for conversations at a higher level.
For example – I get involved in many conversations about Complexity. That’s an excellent example of a buzzword … it’s great when there are more than two syllables, and the “x” pushes it into the “danger zone.”
Unfortunately, buzzwords can be less than helpful when used poorly. When trying to understand a “big idea,” it is beneficial to invest the time to parse meanings and get specific. Complexity can be confusing; is it a good thing? Or a bad thing?
Good Thing, Bad Thing?
The challenge is that Complexity flows in both directions.
- Complexity is Bad: Sometimes, Complexity means complicated. The system / process / supporting technology has many moving parts, rules and regulations, menu options, process steps, and configuration parameters. There is an air of waste and inefficiency here – complexity slows us down, confuses our customers, and frustrates our teams.
- Complexity is Good: Or at least, a necessary evil. In this case, Complexity means nuanced, capable, full-featured.
- When discussing systems and processes, Complexity is required, even desired, because the problem space is large and the software is very capable. Case in point: image manipulation. Systems like Adobe Lightroom or GIMP are competent tools with a long learning curve and an active online community. If I have some challenging image changes to make, I will look for the most capable tool for the job – Complexity is enabling my success.
- Similarly, Complexity can describe the structure of a process, a business, even the interactions of internal and external market forces. A company’s environment might be complex because it serves a range of customers, in different segments, with different operating models. For a small company serving big customers, processes must support sophisticated systems. For a big company serving small customers, processes must handle different levels of end-user sophistication. Other businesses have complicated paths to the end customer, with multiple sales channels, a range of distribution channels, numerous business agreements, and detailed pricing models. These examples of Complexity are a good thing, because the ability to handle this complexity becomes a competitive advantage and a barrier to entry for new competitors.
You say “complex,” I say “flexible”
A sales rep actually said that to me once. He was using wit to defuse a difficult question about the system’s learning curve and ended up making a subtly brilliant insight. You can’t make blanket statements about Complexity without understanding the context.
Complexity can be a barrier to forward progress. How do we overcome obstacles? In the Manufacturing world, principles like Lean and Continuous Improvement seek to take out complexity that doesn’t add value to the process. Automation can streamline complex manual processes, and Design Thinking helps processes flow smoothly, making them easier to teach, learn, and operate.
Complexity can be an enabler of competitive advantage. How do we enable this advantage – in an efficient manner? By investing the time to understand the environment and the need. To service these needs efficiently, we will revisit complexity reduction – not to change the environment, but to design a process and flow that enables and manages the complexity as simply as possible.
The Zero-Sum Game
These two ideas (Complexity means Complicated, Complexity means Capable) are actually two ends of a spectrum. Think of systems and processes – are they complicated to use, or complicated to build and maintain?
- I build a spreadsheet to compute some metrics. I can keep the spreadsheet simple (for me) and get the answer out quickly … but this typically means that I am the only one who can use this calculation. There are no instructions, many hard-coded cell references, and fixed values with no explanation. It isn’t complex, delivered a simple answer, and did it fast (a good thing) … but it isn’t very easy to re-use in the future or share with other teams to use for their own metrics. Simple to build, complex to use.
- Alternatively, I can create a powerful and flexible spreadsheet that supports a family of metrics. Questions and followups are easily answered by the user, because the thing was designed to add new data, keep it valid and scrubbed, and intelligently realign the user interface as new options come in. Super simple to use and share – but it takes a ton of work to make something that flexible. Complex to build, easy to use.
On which end of this spectrum do we invest? The best answer is pretty close to straight down the middle.
Good Thing, Bad Thing
In the end, Complexity isn’t good or bad … it’s just a thing. All systems, environments, teams, and people have their complexities – it’s what makes this an interesting world.
Before falling into the glib use of the Complexity buzzword, choose to invest a little time defining the complexity – the good parts and the bad, the stuff we need to keep, and the stuff we can simplify to make a meaningful impact.