Simplicity and Complexity

Simplicity: good; complexity: bad.

In the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world we face an increasing onslaught of information. We no longer have the time to read, listen or watch long messages; let alone think about what they mean. Short and simple is the order of the day.

Problem is: this places all the load on our fast, intuitive thinking, and this can only make sense of that which we have previously made sense of: old news not new information.

Unless we have the depth and breadth of understanding that enables us to quickly make sense of new information, our intuitions will lead us astray, and to potentially devastating cost.

Complexity Captured in Simplicity

In this simple formula Einstein concisely captured the essence of the universe without ambiguity.

It contributed to a massive leap forward in our understanding of what makes the universe tick and how we could better exploit its hidden potential.

The trouble with such elegant reductions is that they take minds capable of understanding complexity to realise just how beautiful, powerful and revealing they are.

Their meaning is invisible to those who lack the curiosity to find out, or the education to have been told, what they mean.

This is what separates the informed from the ignorant.

Complexity Ignored by Simplicity

Trump's simple message means whatever the listener wants it to. It seems clear but is effectively meaningless.

What is 'great' to you? Free trade or protectionism? Repatriation of immigrants or a vibrant melting pot of cultures?

'Again' implies things were better in the past and the time has come to turn the clock back.

It's a message that appeals to people who don't like complexity and are fearful of change, yet it ignores layers of complexity regarding what 'great' means to two different people, let alone a nation of millions.

For Donald and his supporters what 'great' is seems obvious, and how it can be achieved as simple stopping the things that aren't 'great'.

That they lack any shared or coherent understanding of the issues involved, how systems interact or the consequences of possible solutions is all by the way.

The Albert-Donald Spectrum: where you are on it and why it matters

Successful organisations (nations included) need leaders who are intelligent and informed, aware of the needs of the organisations and people they represent and, perhaps more importantly, able to draw on the pooled knowledge and expertise of others. However, leaders will only appeal to others if what they say makes sense to them. The more ignorant and less well informed the people the more likely it is they will lend their support to an ignorant and ill informed leader.

If you are inclined to hold to traditional beliefs, see your family and nation as fortresses that, first and foremost, need to be protected from hostile outsiders and take the view that everybody should just look out for themselves, then you are likely to hold personal values that limit your curiosity, make you fearful of change and erect barriers to learning. The consequence being you unconsciously and unwittingly encourage the proliferation of short-sightedness, prejudice and actions that will ultimately rebound on you and yours.

Donald Trump benefited from the appeal of such simple promises as bringing back jobs to the US 'stolen by the Chinese' to voters with personal values that made them sympathetic to the above outlook.

The prosperity of nations is built on foreign trade. The US benefits from selling Apple, Intel and Google's high-tech knowledge to the rest of the world, and from the cheapness of goods manufactured in countries where wages are lower, which benefit in turn from this US investment. Putting up barriers to foreign goods so as to help US manufacturers better compete with foreigners with lower production costs may appeal to unemployed US workers in the short term, but, when the costs of more expensive US made goods feed back to US consumers and manufacturers, the whole US economy suffers, and it won't be just the jobs he seeks to protect that will come under threat. The complex interactions between consumers, manufacturers and tax payers in the market system are invisible to simple minded, transactional decision-makers who see a problem and reach for what appears to be the obvious quick fix.

If, on the other hand, your personal values incline you toward curiosity, to welcome new information and so accumulate the wisdom to distinguish opportunities from threats, you will have the confidence to openly engage with others rather than take up arms or hide behind barriers. If your personal values encourage you to engage with the unfamiliar and take the time to understand it then, perversely, you are more likely to acquire the wisdom that will enable you to quickly make sense of new information. These are the values that will help us as we move further into the VUCA age: the values that enable us to face waves of innovation with a surfboard rather than a bunker.

Organisations need to have people whose values enable them to be future focussed. In order for this to happen people need to be challenged and supported. Our dependence on belief in unreliable information - concerning ourselves, others and the world around us - needs to be replaced by an ability to question and make sense of things objectively: so building humility and real self-confidence, independence and compassion, quick wittedness and deep understanding.

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