Complexity for Simplicity

How Adding Complexity Can Simplify Your Business


There is a well-recognised scientific theory that the universe naturally tends towards complexity. As Ray Kurzeil stated, in the beginning, before the Big Bang, and the Universe started to expand, everything was contained in a perfect singularity. The universe was at its least complex. Since that time, everything has been increasing in complexity.

In the book Shantaram, the author writes that everything that contributes to complexity is good, and everything that works against complexity is evil. The more complex something is, the more alive it is.

In a study published in the journal Space Policy, researcher Kelly Smith also supports the theory, adding that the complexity can be observed in different ways – moral, religious, scientific, technological, and even in business. Smith claims “that universal agreement could lay the foundations for a system of ethics that is truly universal”; meaning that everything is on a path to a higher level of complexity and that the path of this complexity is to end in one “ultimate complexity”. For some this means singularity, for others it is God, or some other higher universal power. Anything that helps this process is good, and anything that thwarts it is evil. Hmmm, interesting!

It’s an interesting concept, the interpretation of which varies. Personally, I prefer not to add the complexities of religion and politics to business practices. However, considering that one of my overall goals is in helping businesses facing increasing complexity remain strategically sustainable, and use technology to its greatest advantage, I thought about this natural progression towards complexity from a business perspective.

It is certainly true that business today is more complex than ever before. The obvious example is with the introduction of the Internet – international business became possible for everyone. However, with that came the added complexity of multiple currencies, trading laws, cultural interpretations and market preferences.

So how is complexity increasing in business?

In general terms, complexity arises when we either:

  1. Add something new – when computers were first introduced into business, they were complex machines, but with effort to learn how to operate them, things became simpler. The first windows user interfaces were quite simple, compared to today – function was limited to the basics. As users demanded more, computer systems became more complex. Today, the designers are just on an ego trip, and many of the basic features that we need are becoming obfuscated by the confusion of media mania demanded by teenagers. Definitely moved towards complexity with a positive result, then it becomes questionable.
  2. Add more of something existing – introducing more advanced business software added complexity of choice – just look at the explosion of analytics software. Without a firm understanding of data, and analytics functions, it is very difficult for businesses to determine which option suits them best. Data scientists rarely understand the nuances of business, and business users certainly are not data scientists – so how to choose!!

We tend to add layers of complexity to our business processes, sometimes this drives better results, but other times you end up getting a lesser result.

Regardless of whether you see adding complexity as an evolution or a means of transformation, one thing is common – complexity should be an investment in simplicity. When you are adding complexity to a process, it must net you a result of increased simplicity to either you as a leader, or make things easier and simpler for your team or your clients in getting the desired results.

One of the biggest challenges relatively immature businesses face when entering high growth, is that they are overwhelmed by complexity – they have not structured their businesses to support their growth. And sadly, too often, the leaders of these businesses either fail to recognise they need to change, or refuse to accept they need to change. They continue to pursue their dream of a “new type of business structure”, “we want work to be relaxed and innovative”, and a myriad of other reasons why they want to maintain the same structure, systems and culture that they had at start up.

The reality is – if you want to stay the same size and impact, keep doing things the same. If you want to grow, earn more, and have a greater impact, you need to change. My role is to facilitate that change. The world is changing so fast that it is difficult to keep up with trends and innovations.

With big data analytics, we are uncovering complexities we were not even aware of – discovery methods and analysis help to uncover patterns, relationships and trends that we previously lost in the chaos, in the complexity of the macro market. However, the use of analytics can be a very complex process – it certainly adds confusion for many business users attempting to use analytics tools designed for data scientists. So to access the benefits of technology that can reveal the insights of complexity, vendors must first simplify access to analytics, so that the benefits to leaders and employees can then be translated into improved products and services that will benefit their markets.

When we add more complexity, it can lead to confusion, which can lead to a lesser result. When you scale up a business, it tends to add complexity, so we need to confirm the payoffs for either you, your team or your clients. Reducing simplicity for yourself, as the leader, has to be manageable in terms of stress management and sustainable growth. So ask yourself, in what ways do you wish that your business was simpler?

In systems analysis, there is a belief that the more complex a problem is, and the more constraints there are, the easier it is to get to solutions. However, this is purely a numbers game. Naturally, if something is more complex, there are more elements, and more opportunities to improve. There are also more opportunities to fail – and that is why we need different structures and systems. Intelligent structural design overcomes the increased complexity – and reduces stress by supporting more pressure.

Simply understanding this, does not make things less complex – it requires adding more people into structures; it requires adding more steps into a process. I can hear systems analysts cry out no!!!! Systems analysis attempts to reduce process steps, in an effort reduce handoff errors and delays. And in principle I agree, and also practice this approach. However, sometimes we gain more by breaking things into smaller steps. In doing so we add simplicity and clarity – reducing confusion and increasing insight into where issues or opportunities for improvement lie.

So, remember two things:

You cannot grow your business and stay the same.

Complexity is an investment in simplicity.

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