Probably ever since mankind learnt to express ideas, simplification has been a key concept. “Mammoths are good” (food) and “sabre-tooth tigers are bad” (predators). Simplification is a way to survive in a complex environment (“Don’t play with the matches!”). Yet even then, mammoths could be dangerous and sabre-tooth tigers might have been tasty, too (I don’t know). Ambiguity strikes.

Your iPhone is not simple

“Simplification” has also been a management mantra for a while. As usual, the iPhone has to serve as the textbook example for simplicity. Here’s the tale: a simple user interface, a standardised operating system, an app store and you end up with one of the most successful products ever. More advanced advocates argue that Apple only supports so many older versions and even dares to retire from supporting certain generations or features. They also tend to argue that Apple maintains more or less only one version of its operating system(s): the latest one.

A true tale of mystery and imagination this is. Here’s another point of view: Your average smartphone is the most densely packed assortment of hight tech in human history. All the parts, from glass to sensors to processors to operating system are pieces of art and craft in themselves but it is the way they are interwoven with each other that makes your phone a unique gear. The same holds for the “ecosystem”: your watch, your music, your photos, your mail, your apps … . If you peek behind the curtain, it is quite complex indeed. Btw: when it comes to supporting older hardware, Apple isn’t that bad … says the guy who still uses an iPhone SE. And when it comes to versions of operating systems, Google follows a very different approach with Android … not so very unsuccessfully, too.

So. Who is right? The simplification camp or the complexity camp? Well, for once, the answer is not “both”. Let’s begin with complexity. The complexity party is fully right. Your iPhone is a truly complex piece. And the world is a very, very complex place. There is no way of denying or ignoring that. My physicist’s heart’s favourite example is quantum mechanics. Matter behaves like particles and waves at the same time and — worse! — the act of observation changes the behaviour as such. THAT’S COMPLEX! But it is the way our world works. (Well, it actually leads to another question: is our world the only one and if so, how many of them are there?). You simply cannot bend electrons to (always) behaving like small balls … just because this would be easier to comprehend.

Simplification may lead nowhere

Now, if the world is complex (it is!), what about simplification? — Simplification is indeed a way to cope with a complexity we cannot master otherwise. The trick though is to find the right (level of) simplification for the problem we want to solve. This in turn needs a proper understanding of the (complex) problem and the (complex) world.

In science, this is what we call a model or an approximation. Some approximations can be rather simple. For example the curve of a ball pretty much follows the laws Isaac Newton stated in the early 18th century (well, reading through this for a second time, it dawns on me that possibly not everyone appreciates these laws as “simple” … and it actually took mankind a few millennia to prepare the ground for Newton’s insights). More often than not, simple approximations are just too simple.

If you for instance want to make weather forecasts, simple models simply lead nowhere (despite btw the laws still being Newton’s ones). Complex ones might help you through a week or so. Sometimes even problems that look simple at first glance, prove complex on deeper inspection. Take the three-body-problem for example. The trick is acknowledging complexity in order to find the proper simplification … which might prove not so simple after all.

Complexity doesn’t find many followers

Strategy is nothing but another attempt to simplify, an attempt to outline some guiding principles that help navigate a complex world. Look at the ways Chess or Go players approach their games. They take their decisions based on (strategic) patterns that have evolved over centuries. Yet we know today that there are other strategies that are more successful. Computers can find these and humankind has lost the competition for good … but that’s another story. Still, talking about strategy sheds a light on another aspect of simplification. You don’t do yourself a favour if your strategy tries to acknowledge that the world is complex (would you even call it a strategy any longer then?). For one simple reason: it is way easier to find followers for simple messages than it is with embracing complexity.

The ultimate dilemma

What a dilemma! — You find your followers by making it too simple whilst at the same time making it too simple doesn’t solve the problems you (and your followers) actually want to solve. I would be grateful indeed for a simple answer to this problem.

 

 

Photo by Erico Marcelino on Unsplash

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