Simple vs complex: Who’s right?

Leonardo da Vinci and Coco Chanel were separated by centuries but had one thing in common: a love of simplicity. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” the serial inventor declared, in words echoed by Chanel and the hordes of fashionistas who followed her.

Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works, captured that spirit somewhat less elegantly with his KISS principle, Keep it Simple Stupid, a phrase that infiltrated the mainstream and can still be heard today. But is KISS now passè? Is simplicity enough in these volatile times? As the late Steve Jobs demonstrated, simplicity still resonates when it comes to aesthetics, perhaps because of the ambiguous environment. Yet to make sense of accelerating change and intensifying complexity, simple cause and effect rationales no longer suffice.

Nature offers countless examples of complex adaptive systems, dynamic networks of relationships and interdependencies that interact in unpredictable ways. “Ten thousand years ago, most cause and effect was pretty clear,” says Michael Mauboussin, chief investment strategist at Legg Mason Capital Management. “But it means that when you see something occur in a complex adaptive system, your mind is going to create a narrative to explain what happened – even though cause and effect are not comprehensive in that kind of system.” Using an ant colony as an example, “you can’t understand the system by looking at the behaviour of individual ants,” he says. “That’s the essence of complex adaptive systems … emergence disguises cause and effect. We really don’t know what’s going on.”

Management thinkers increasingly advocate a stronger focus on systems thinking and sense-making skills at senior levels in order to manage and exploit the opportunities of greater complexity. “We’ve made tremendous progress in our ability to operate complicated systems, even large ones,” say researchers Gökçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath. “We have made less progress in our ability to operate complex systems, which defy conventional modeling and challenge traditional management practices. Leaders need to use better tools for anticipating how these systems will behave – tools that can help us understand the constant interaction of numerous elements and the impact of rare but extreme events.”

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