From Complexity to Simplicity

Recently I heard a client make this intriguing statement: “Some of the smartest people I know work for this company,” she said, “however, I think too often we use our intelligence to increase the complexity of our work. What if we used our intelligence to drive simplicity?”

That comment got me thinking. Much is written about complexity today and there’s no doubt that growth, globalization, technology, market competition, and a whole host of intractable social and environmental problems have made our personal and organizational lives infinitely more complex. There’s much more to say on this – and I will in future blogs – but today I’m wondering about simplicity. Specifically, what new possibilities open up when we shift our focus from complexity to simplicity?

There’s a paradox in here that has something to do with our reliance on expertise and rational problem solving. I’m familiar with this because my team and I spend a great deal of our time helping highly trained experts learn alternative ways of thinking and acting that will make them more effective in building relationships and having impact in their organizations. Almost without exception, we observe an over-reliance on expert problem-solving when encountering organizational challenges. Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect expertise and have spent years becoming an expert in my own field. But not all problems lend themselves to expert solutions, analysis and prediction –  and some (the complex ones) can become more intractable if we remain mired in a problem solving mode.

As Ron Heifetz says, expert problem solving works well with technical problems, which have known solutions that can be achieved by deploying existing knowledge or procedures (which includes complicated problems like brain surgery and rocket science). But this approach is relatively ineffective with when faced with what Heifetz calls adaptive challenges that require new learning that disrupt existing beliefs, values, habits and allegiances. In the arena of organizational and social change, almost all challenges are at least partially adaptive. And yet, because our educational systems and training as experts has inculcated a bias toward problem solving, we go right into the mode of throwing solutions at the problem. There’s not a lot of listening and it tends to create debate, disagreement and complicated solutions. This is one way in which we use our collective intelligence to create more complexity.

Zaid Hassan talks about a related issue in his new book, The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges.” Today, Hassan says we are facing a “perfect storm of complexity” as we face a vast array of complicated and intractable social problems that do not respond to our tried and true methods. One of the most taken-for-granted approaches to any problem, says Hassan, is to create a strategic plan. Hassan calls this the “expert-planning paradigm” which is technocratic approach that assumes any problem has predictable elements that can be solved by a combination of technical know-how and planning. However, as Hassan argues, “the expert-planning paradigm is profoundly un-strategic in nature and leads to the creation of strategic vacuums coupled with expensive activity around complex social challenges” (p. 38). Painful historic examples abound to illustrate this point, including the Vietnam War and the Soviet bureaucracy which toppled the USSR. Within organizations, change management is often code for technocratic planning.

If expert problem solving and rational top-down planning processes are not effective – what’s the alternative? Get simple, argues Hassan, and get practical.

Simple and practical starts by throwing away the play book and giving up the pretense of having the answer. It starts with a mindset that includes curiosity, openness to learning, appreciation of other perspectives, and a willingness to experiment. To achieve this we must re-learn fundamental skills such as deep listening, suspending judgment, and balancing advocacy with curiosity and inquiry. These capabilities are in-born, but lost to most of us as we become adults. They are simple in concept but hard to do given our loud inner voices which perpetually shout at us an array of opinions and solutions. Nevertheless, building mastery in this domain of mindful inquiry and practical wisdom is of urgent importance if we are to make progress on the ambiguous, complicated, difficult adaptive challenges that confront our organizations and societies.

With this as a foundation, simple and practical also means taking an experimental, learning approach to tackle tough problems. A pragmatic approach has no space for elaborate long-range planning schemes. We know from experience that they become obsolete anyway, well before completion. And when the problem is amorphous and the outcomes unpredictable, it may be important to be a good learner rather than a good planner. Schlesinger and Kiefer (2012) have observed this in the behavior of successful entrepreneurs who take a small action, find out what works, and then take the next action based on what they learn. Hassan (2014) makes a similar argument, recommending an “iterative process” to address a complex challenge that allows for incremental learning. “The simplest form of an iterative process is trial, error, observation, and reflection. You try something out, wait to see what happens, and then make another move based on what you’ve learned” (p. 120).

All of this is not to say that expert problem-solving is wrong or inappropriate; however, it’s insufficient by itself and we are often unaware of how habitually we turn to these comfortable strategies. When faced with complexity, try practicing simplicity, which means listening, reflecting, being present, taking small steps, creating modest experiments, practicing iterative learning, and understanding that knowledge and insight will emerge along the way.


  • Hassan, Z. (2014). The social labs revolution: A new approach to solving our most complex challenges. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow & Marty Linksy (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press
  • Schlesinger, L.A., Kiefer, C.F. & Brown, P.B. (2012). Just start: Take action, embrace uncertainty, create the future. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.