A few weeks back, I read something that irritated me. I was scrolling through a newsfeed and passed an article titled “Complexity doesn’t exist.” It was a well-intentioned headline, but for me, it was like that itch you can’t reach in the middle of your back, or something stuck in your teeth. I went back and looked at the title and realized it bugged me. I opened the article, read it, commented on it, and discussed it with the author. I went back to it a few days later and read it again. It stuck with me, prodding me for a reason I couldn’t explain but couldn’t let go of either.
I was confident that the central premise was false, as complexity is not an illusion and it does exist. If anything, it is growing. But then I had an insight about the title of the post: most of us really, really want it to be true. We want the world to be a simple place. We want the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be bad. We want hard work and honesty to be rewarded. We want duplicity and laziness to be punished. We love “common sense” answers. We are far more comfortable with ideas and actions that already conform with our instincts and pre-existing biases. It isn’t entirely our fault. We are biologically built to be that way by default.
We are all, in some sense, hard-wired to be lazy. This is not some patronizing judgment I am making about how hard you work, but rather a way of describing how all of our brains, including mine, function.
Our brains are phenomenally adept pattern recognition machines. They take huge amounts of sensory information, memories, and experience then jump to conclusions at speeds that would make a supercomputer jealous. Evidence would suggest that we evolved this way to survive over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. In those ancient times, we needed to be able to make fast decisions more often than deeply considered ones.
These fast decisions happen at what we think of as a “subconscious” level, meaning below our conscious mind. A lot of us would like to think we make decisions rationally. In reality, more often we make a decision very quickly and then try to think of the reason we made that decision after the fact, to prove to ourselves that we are rational.
None of what I am saying is new or even disputed. There are many theories as to why this is, ranging from the evolutionary to the ethno-cultural. Regardless of the reason for this pattern recognition method, the fact that it exists might explain how attracted we are to oversimplification.
We love clichés, clickbait and executive summaries. Pamphlets, headlines and memes were all created to give us the gist of something without having to descend into the complexity of the thing in order to process it. And that’s okay.
But sometimes there are times where deeper understanding is of great value. These instances come around when understanding something imperfectly or incompletely can actually make things worse. We live in a world where desperately clinging to simple answers can have catastrophic results. Let’s illustrate through a case.
Should working-age people who work a reasonably full schedule earn a living wage? Those of us who don’t embrace cruelty for fun probably lean immediately towards “yes” as the answer to this question. If you really care about the answer, you cannot just stop there. Because it has been tried. A lot. And something completely unexpected happened. It seems that if you raise the minimum wage as an isolated tactic for raising the standard of living of the poorest among us, it reduces the economic power of those you are trying to help. Our society is an intricate machine with a massive number of cause and effect relationships that don’t yield answers like a vending machine when you put in coins. If you are curious about this topic, a good onramp to the issue is this episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast. The point is, there are a lot of issues that have so many moving pieces that trying a simple solution can make things much worse, regardless of good intentions.
Bursting into a burning room to save a trapped child from the fire seems simple and obvious. But opening the door without understanding could kill you and the child. We forgive people with good intentions and punish those with mens rea (bad intent), but our world is complex and intentions are often disconnected from results.
Shouldn’t understanding complexity be something we embrace if we want to make real positive change, instead of just being seen to be “doing good?” After some serious research and thought, the answer I have come up with is: sometimes.
Often, knowing why something works is immaterial to how to use it. For example, I do not need degrees in physics and electrical engineering in order to use a light switch successfully. It would be easy to become paralyzed if one needed to understand everything fully in order to do anything. So we usually accept the shortcuts we are given and the pattern matches that our brains make which we call instincts. In some circumstances, even if those things are not totally accurate, doing something imperfectly is preferable to doing nothing. A humorous example of this is the portrayal of Chidi Anagonye in the television show The Good Place. This character’s good intentions, and the decision paralysis that results, literally lead him down the path to hell.
So, my theory is that sometimes quick action with limited understanding is warranted and sometimes it isn’t. Knowing which method to apply in which situation can turn many of your actions from well-intentioned failure to successfully achieving your goals.
Let’s start with coming up with some kind method for figuring out which decisions are worthy of investigation and thought versus the ones that should really be made quickly. The funny thing is, in a sort of ironic and meta way, considering this method is, in itself, a complex question that demands deep thought.
So if we are going to try to work out a quick way to triage which decisions need to happen quickly and which ones you can take a bit of time with, I think the first step is to consider the universe like Doctor Who might.
The Cost of Time
Is the cost per time increment worth the result? To use a medical triage metaphor, if a guy comes into the emergency room with blood spurting out of his neck, how long do you have to make a decision before he dies? Should the doctor spend a few minutes planning her course of treatment in order to minimize the visibility of the scar? Obviously not, because the cost of losing his life outweighs the aesthetics. But should she stop for a moment to put on protective gear in case he has a blood-borne infection? Maybe. It depends on how much gear, the likelihood of infection and an estimation of how much time he’s got.
So if the cost of the time is higher than we are willing to pay, then following your gut and acting without a research project may be the right decision. Take one more moment to consider if there is something you can do to alter the parameters of the question.
Can a Band-Aid Buy More Time?
Can something be done right now to give us the opportunity to make a more considered decision without paying a catastrophic price? Stop the bleeding. Reinforce the aging bridge. Buy a gift for an ailing relationship. This is an excellent technique for both dealing with an urgent issue and also to get agreement if people don’t agree about the approach.
If the doctor can be trained to make these assessments quickly then she might not lose much time donning only gloves before treating the patient and if she can just stop the bleeding, that buys her patient time to have the bigger problem addressed in surgery later. She might not lose any time at all if she is already wearing the gloves. This leads us to the next consideration.
The Preparation Bypass
Lots of things are difficult and complex the first time, but if you pay attention, you can put things in place to make the next time much easier to handle. Sometimes it is even possible to reduce or to eliminate the difficulty in the future. We can use preparation to short-circuit the chaos that can come with urgency or the stress of handling something for the first time.
So much of what we do falls into this category. Hell, pretty much most of technology is an attempt to make things that used to be hard to do much easier/safer/faster the second time around. Food is messy to eat with your hand, ta-da: fork. Tree is hard to cut down, ta-da: the saw. Table saw cutting off fingers, ta-da: Saw Stop (I love this thing, it is seriously cool).
We also use processes to bypass the obstacles we experienced the first time we did something. Scrum is an example of this. The “cross-check” flight attendants to on airplane doors before take-off is another process that is very powerful in this regard.
So now we have a method for figuring out if you can trust your gut and go with the simple solution. Then we looked at how to move some complex situations into the simple category using preparation. But what about those cases where you really should make the effort to understand the details? How do you handle those?
The Novel Condition
This question is something that I have been thinking about since I was about 13 years old and I first read the poem Song of Myself by Walt Whitman:
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Reading this set me on a lifelong journey of trying to understand… well, everything I could. I didn’t read the poem as an egotistical encouragement to only listen to yourself. I read it more like a permission slip. It is granting us all permission to look into and to try to understand things without swallowing whole what others say. It’s an exhortation to not be lazy and to do the work yourself. To own your understanding. It has inspired me for decades.
Why do I start a discussion of dealing with new problems with poetry? I guess it is in the hope that maybe if I come at it from an unexpected angle you will pay attention. Novel problems need you to think of them differently than you are used to. Ironically, there is an old method that is really worth considering when dealing with something new.
Applying Old Thinking to New Problems
I was introduced to this old method by one of the podcasts I have really enjoyed over the years - Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. He looks at all kinds of things that have been forgotten or overlooked, but last year he did a three-episode arc that was unified by an approach to dealing with novel problems. He introduced his audience to the principle of Casuistry, first postulated by Aristotle but really developed by the Jesuits. Gladwell describes it elegantly using examples of moral dilemmas from cheating in baseball to the use of the birth control pill.
The discussion says that if we use dogma and pre-existing principles, we are likely to come out with a “more harm than good” solution regardless of our intentions. How colonizing Europeans treated Indigenous Peoples thinking they had God on their side is one of many examples that spring to mind. Living in Canada it is impossible to ignore the recent revelations about how the Church and State treated Indigenous children in residential schools. I am horrified, but also curious, as to what justifications the people running those schools used to let themselves sleep at night. What dogma or principles allowed them to abduct and kill hundreds or even thousands of children, then cover up their actions over decades?
So, if we shouldn’t use our pre-existing rigid belief systems to figure out how to handle new situations, what guide should we use? Casuistry suggests finding a number of cases that we have seen in the past that are as similar as possible to this new one and learning from the good and the bad outcomes of how it was handled. Then we should apply those lessons to the situation at hand.
Mix in some creativity and some empathy and you may have a recipe for making decisions that are more likely to result in more than the ability to claim “I wanted to do good.” It will actually achieve your goals.
So, why is anything I have to say about this topic worth listening to? Maybe it isn’t, but for the past 10 years, my team and I have been trying to do something that “common sense” indicated should be easy but that the experts thought was impossible. The software that runs a pretty big chunk of businesses in our world is called ERP and its existence is one of the reasons why big companies have been able to dominate most markets over the past decades. We set out to build a toolset for small businesses that is even more powerful, but obtainable at a fraction of the cost both in time and money. Our ambition was no less than that of Prometheus: to give the power of the corporate gods to any common company that wanted to attain it. Many have tried to reinvent this type of software and run the gamut between outright failure and greatly reducing expectations in order to achieve limited success.
Having this ambition was inspirational. Understanding what would be involved in achieving it was, to say the least, intimidating. It made me think of that plaque on JFK’s desk that said “O God, Thy Sea Is So Great And My Boat Is So Small.” The number of variables, data relationships, and pre-existing expectations were so numerous that they seemed endless.
Ten years later, I can proudly say that we have achieved something pretty special. But how did we do it? The answer is that we descended into the particulars, as Casuistry advises. We broke down the larger problem into many parts and tried to find the similar ones amongst them all. Then, we tried to look at each of the case-sets with empathy and creativity in terms of how we could affect those using our tools.
Surprisingly, some of the ideas and information came from medical practices, some came from learnings from the military, some even came from games. We tried really hard to understand each case and then experimented with different solutions. We failed a lot, but we strove to learn from each failure to incrementally and constantly improve. We’re not done yet, as there is still a lot of unknowns out there to figure out within our field, but the process, in retrospect, is something I wanted to share.
We handled emergencies quickly, while still trying to learn from them. We always remembered that we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We never forgot that we were always trying to make solutions for people: fallible humans. Whenever we could, we realized that oversimplifying was dangerous and we respected the real complexity of the ambition we were trying to achieve.
Power is Fascinating
Whether you are looking at powerful tools, animals, weapons, natural forces or people, we are attracted to them. But we need to respect them and the often misunderstood complexity that created that power. Failing to respect that power can often mean failing to achieve our aims in small and sometimes catastrophic ways. For example, gravity as a physical force is enormously powerful. From the outside, it seems pretty simple. But, if you want to harness it, counteract it or control it effectively, the complexity involved is massive.
Consider a roller coaster. A park visitor can ride it without knowing how it works, but would you trust it if you didn’t think that physics, design and engineering were intensively used to build it? If someone insisted that the roller coaster builders should ignore the complexity… let’s just say I would assign them very little credibility, regardless of how confidently or loudly they insisted.
In a kind of meta way, writing about how to handle complex problems is, in itself, a complex problem. First, I tried to figure out if there was a quick and simple way to handle it without making it worse. The answer I came up with was “no.” Then, I considered if there was a temporary solution that would give me more time to consider the wider problem. In this case, again the answer was “no.” So, for me, this became a novel problem that required a fairly deep dive that would hopefully lead to a greater understanding and yield a mechanism that would make this issue easier the next time around. Also, it would yield advice that if someone did not have time to fully consider the issue, they could have a shortcut or bridge to give them something minimally viable until they could tackle it for themselves.
That bridge is this:
First figure out if you should stay shallow or go deep. Then, if going deeper is warranted, go all in because simpler is not always better.