“Simple vs. Complex?” No. “Simple, THEN Complex.”

If you’re a fan of complexity, you (like me) were probably disappointed by the Boston Globe’s recent report on why most humans believe easy = true.

If we’re wired to seek out the simple, this puts the real power of communication in the hands of whomever can frame complex issues as matters of simple choice.

In other words, we should believe that humans can create the Internet, but we shouldn’t realistically expect anyone to be able to use it?


If all we ever embrace are the basics, how will we develop the skills necessary to solve more complex problems?

If your business is faltering or your economy is collapsing, wouldn’t you want the people solving those problems to be able to process more than just the basics?


But that person can’t do all the work herself.  At some point, she needs the help of people who can only process the basics.  And if she can break complex problems down to the basics, that’s a skill all itself.

So maybe the real issue here isn’t that we need to choose between simple or complex.

Maybe we just need to change the order in which we process information.

“Less Talk, More Rock.”

That’s the advice of the Superbrothers, who used their platform in Boing Boing to rally against the problem of overcomplication.

Go right from the inspiration — the vision — to actually making [whatever your idea is]. Don’t think it through. Don’t talk about it. Don’t plan it. Dive in and start making it happen.

If you do that — if you can start rocking — you’ll get some momentum, and when you have some momentum then the project has a chance… Sure, you’ll still run up against problems to solve and decisions to make, but you’ll approach these in the moment and solve them in the moment. You’ll solve them so you can keep moving.

The take-away here is: rock before talking.

In other words: do something.  Then investigate its impact.

This approach doesn’t remove the element of complexity; it just shifts it to the end of the line, when the information you’re processing is based on experience instead of presumption.

Maybe the Superbrothers are on to something.

Buy This.

The Ad Contrarian (AKA Bob Hoffman) is a devotee of simplicity.  But he also fears that we’re now living in the age of the complicator, and that makes the life of an advertiser hell.

As he tells it:

Next to talent, the most important quality an ad person can have is the ability to simplify.

There are a million things to say about any product or brand. A simplifier understands the difference between what is essential and what is peripheral.

To a complicator, on the other hand, everything has equal weight. He is unable to do the most essential of all strategic tasks — eliminate the unnecessary.

Like the Superbrothers, Hoffman has a point.

As an organizer, I can always appreciate the need to simplify.

As a communicator, I know that simplicity is the way to connect quickly with lots of people.

And as a marketer, I know that the path between your eyes and your wallet doesn’t include a detour into your brain.

But what happens when opposing sides each cling to their own simplicities?

If Easy = True, Does That Mean Complicated = False?

When President Obama gave his annual State of the Union speech back in January, the Harvard Business Review’s Roger Martin analyzed Obama’s language and found something compelling.

I’ve seen this pattern of “integrative thinking” employed by a number of highly successful business leaders — so much so that I set out to study it. What I’ve found is that these leaders, rather than defining their job as choosing from between opposing ideas, are inclined to reject the choice and instead seek a new and better model.

So, instead of being forced to choose between two seemingly exclusive options, Obama (and the other leaders profiled in Martin’s book The Opposable Mind) prefer to seek a third solution that satisfies elements of each argument while still accomplishing his end goal.

This seems wise.

But considering the easy = true theory, it also seems politically dangerous.

Isn’t it easier (and faster) to polarize an audience, accomplish what you can with the friends you have, and view your opponent as The Other?  Doesn’t that simultaneously define your boundaries, limit your expectations and provide you with an excuse if you fail?

Sure.  But it’s only satisfying if your goals are easy.

Before You Can Grab the Brass Ring, You Have to Board the Carousel

Getting rich personally isn’t the same thing as fixing the economy.

Getting laid isn’t the same thing as raising a child.

Being happy isn’t the same as staying happy.

They’re the basics.

Getting rich is easy.  Getting laid is easier.  And being happy is just flipping a switch.

Fixing a complex system is a lot harder, and it requires a person to bridge the gap between the easy and the complicated.

If you have goals, you also need a system to achieve them.  Sometimes, that system is one step: “Go.”  Other times, that system is a labyrinth of weighted choices and collaborative responsibilities.

Either way, your ultimate goal (AKA “the hard part”) is a matter of solving the easy problems in front of you, step by step.

And the more clearly you see how the basics connect, the more you’ll be able to do with them.

Less talk, more rock?  Absolutely.

Just be aware of what all those rocks are building.

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  • http://twitter.com/technobozo Donna Winter

    Everyone should read this entire post. Great and inspiring info.

  • http://ianmrountree.com Ian M Rountree

    Expressing a complexity simply is not the same thing as demanding simplicity in complex situations – agreed.

    Perhaps we need to do a better job, culturally, of teaching integrative thought as a problem-solving method.

  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    Some interesting points here, but I think you may be misunderstanding something in your math.

    In this post, it seems as if you're saying “simple = easy”, when nothing could be farther from the truth. It's a LOT easier to overload things with complexity, extra steps, etc (don't believe me? look at an idea before and after a 'brainstorming meeting'). It takes strength and courage to go the other way and resist the opportunities to make something more complicated.

    To me, Simple does not equal Easy and Complex does not equal Complicated. They are unrelated spectrums that sometimes get confused.

  • http://broadcasting-brain.com Mark Dykeman

    My day job requires me to frequently convert complicated or complex problems into simple descriptions. It's a necessary evil and it's a by-product of information overload on the part of the clients I serve.

    HOWEVER, we can't all rely on someone to do that translation. SOMEBODY has to understand the details. We can't all fly around with a Cole's Notes understanding of the world.

    Good points, Justin.

  • http://www.hallicious.com Hallicious

    “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

    Working on projects around complex systems makes this skill a necessity, but when it happens in the news I'm always looking for bias. Sadly, it's easy to spot if you attempt to understand the complex item they/the media has simplified. Objectively simplifying a complex system is a difficult thing to do… especially if you have an agenda. ;)

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    It's not just my math, it's the human brain. Have you read the Boston
    Globe's “easy = true” assessment?


    According to that study, we're wired to believe simple things. Does
    that automatically make those simple things true? No, but our brains
    are inclined to think so. And if we're wired for “simple,” aren't we
    also, by nature, wired for “easy”? Who naturally gravitates toward the
    hard solution?

    I agree that breaking down complex issues into simple parts is
    difficult, which is why so few people can do it well. But those who
    do that work seem to benefit exponentially in the end, because the
    crowds reward you for making their lives simpler and, therefore,

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    “Objectively simplifying a complex system is a difficult thing to do.”
    True. So most people seem to subjectively simplify instead. Because
    to simplify objectively requires a broader understanding and, broadly
    speaking, more work on the part of the simplifier AND his audience.

    And no one has the time to think too hard about what they believe.
    Maybe THAT'S the larger issue: not our magnetism for simplicity, but
    our inability to see complexity as a positive.

    (Technically, simplicity and complexity are neutral traits, but they
    carry baggage related to time, resource management and investment.
    Complexity seems to imply luxury, which makes complex systems seem
    like the realm of “elitists”.)

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  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    No. Simple is not easy. Just look at all the cluttered designs and splashy packaging and starbursts and 3700 page bills in congress. We do gravitate toward easy, but that doesn't mean that simple things are easy or easy things are simple.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    No. Simple is not difficult. Just look at all the simple, clear and
    obvious things people do every day with no thought or effort.

    I'm not sure why you're so focused on reducing this to an either-or
    argument in order to prop up a point that seems tangential, but I'm
    happy to deny you your own simplicity — especially when it's easy for
    me to do so.

  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    No. Simple is not easy. Just look at all the cluttered designs and splashy packaging and starbursts and 3700 page bills in congress. We do gravitate toward easy, but that doesn’t mean that simple things are easy or easy things are simple.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    No. Simple is not difficult. Just look at all the simple, clear andrnobvious things people do every day with no thought or effort.rnrnI’m not sure why you’re so focused on reducing this to an either-orrnargument in order to prop up a point that seems tangential, but I’mrnhappy to deny you your own simplicity — especially when it’s easy forrnme to do so.

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  • Yourreasonforexistance

    Ok well life itself is complicated, so we can question why to find out why its so complicated. Simple came first, as much as Complicated came first. There would have had to be complications for simplifications to exist and simplification that then evolves into something more complicated. Make non-exsistance into existence to began life and evolve. It is how ALL began, even our parallel demensions. Basically Simple=Complicated Complicated=Simple. Life is just a BIG ASS COMPLICATED math equation. whats the study of life? Sience, and what is it that proves science to be right? Mathmatical Equations. There is WAAAY more then you know, you just dont know it because its so complex man, you have to start simple, you have to question “Why”. Its what All the great scientist who studied life said, and look what scientists have brought us today: Science to its simplist form. So what you should now question YOURSELF, is what ARE the simple things in life…. I know. And your Whole “First Rock then Talk” is ilogical because you first have To Think Before you Act, its moral and logic. Acting befor thinking can get you in trouble and teach you bad morals (imoral justification) or else your like a dam robot, acting without knowing why yet. Thought->Action Just like when something acts upon you, your instinct is to think. Its a cycle Thought-> Action (or in other words) Thought=Action wich is the same as Action=Thought and like how Simple=Complex and Complex=Simple. I want to know if Any of this made you think and has made you curious? Who ever you are who posted thsi on the internet.

  • Yourreasonforexistance

    Yes, just like trying to find out what the basics are the make the system of life work. We find out through question. Because theres a reason behind all