Eliminating complexity. Except when you shouldn’t.

Business people (myself included) seem to have a habit of making projects more complex than they should be. Introducing complexity to a project often seems like the right direction to take because a simple solution can’t cover all the bases, or doesn’t seem so effective. We convince ourselves that “simple can’t do the job” and that’s all it takes to start running down the road to Complexityville.

Consider an extreme example – the recent events in Nice. Far more complicated plans might have failed due to one aspect or another of the plan not going as expected. Perhaps it didn’t go as expected, despite what happened. Complex attacks are likely foiled on a daily basis and we never hear about them because something went wrong they never made it to “implementation”, or an attack started and the various agencies caught it before anything bad happened. Yet a simple plan like “drive a truck into a big crowd and run over people” unfortunately succeeds, in part because it doesn’t require clockwork-like efficiency and accuracy, nor does it require a complex sequence of events to happen in just the right way. Any wacko who can drive can make that happen.

While it’s an awful, terrible example, it makes the point far better than I wish it had.

Constraints

We don’t always need a highly-complex, 32 (or 320) step project to achieve the outcome we want. In fact, the more complex we make a project, the more opportunities we allow suppliers, life, business, employees, clients, prospects and (of course) ourselves to trip over the tiniest of obstacles – any one of which can prevent a project from being successful. There’s a term for this: “The Theory of Constraints“.

Constraints aren’t just things you weren’t expecting. They’re also parts of the project that don’t necessarily turn out like you expected, or when you expected. The tiniest things have a way of turning momentum at the least opportune time. Large or small, your post project reviews should analyze what you can do to prevent a particular type of step from derailing your projects – including considering whether or not these particular steps should be eliminated altogether. Pilots use checklists – and these are regularly refined as support personnel, mechanics, pilots and others learn of things that reduce or eliminate the possibility that a particular item is going to threaten the safety of a flight. Whatever works for you – use it, but eliminate what you can if it isn’t necessary.

The beauty of complexity

Complexity has its positives. Doesn’t align well with what I said above, does it? It has its moments, despite the negatives in most situations.

The beauty of complexity is that it has negative impacts on your clients as well. I don’t mean that it’s good that they have negative impacts. It’s good that you can fix those things. Complexity wastes their time and their money – and if they’re lucky, nothing else. Have you put any thought into how complexity affects them? What sort of complexity can you help them eliminate from their work processes? More often than not, you’ll learn a great deal by watching their workflows. Figure out how to improve them, or eliminate their complexity. They’ll often be more than happy to discuss them, as long as you don’t come off interested in doing little more than closing a sale. Show that you’re interested in their workflow and improving them and the sale will come.

When is complexity OK?

As with most discussions of this nature, there are exceptions. There are appropriate times to use complexity as a tool. One common use is complexity as a barrier to entry to the business you’re in. If the process of consistently delivering your products and services is highly complex, it’s difficult to mimic. If people have come to expect what you do, then replicating it is also difficult, which makes it more difficult to compete with you.

That’s why systems are critical. Complexity without a system to manage and execute it takes us back to the Theory of Constraints, where every little bump in the road, miscalculation, unexpected result, timing problem or material change introduces a chance to fail. If your systems produce consistent execution, the complexity your systems support make it a steeper climb to compete with you. That’s a positive form of complexity.