If there was any doubt that we live in a highly complex world, just consider how long it would take you to make a sandwich from scratch. YouTuber Andy George did this and found it took six-months to source, create, and assemble the ingredients. This included making his own cheese and killing a chicken, amongst the many other tasks.
This simple(or highly complex) exercise demonstrates how even the most straight forward elements in our world—including the humble sandwich—are the products of highly sophisticated interactions built on a legacy of our ancestors setting it all up in the first place. All this hard work makes me hungry for one of these legacy sandwiches right now. Perhaps if I hold the mayo, I can get one in 5-months?
It isn’t surprising that unravelling, changing, or improving the complex systems that provide a foundation for our lives and work often seems to be an impossible task. And, let’s face it, we somehow make changes more complicated than they really need to be, which can further impact our mood, appetite (sandwich?), and mental health.
This impact can be seen in our daily struggles at work. Over time, layers of complexity build up, and before too long we find ourselves subject to processes depicted by early 1900’s cartoonist, engineer and inventor Rube Goldberg. He is famous for his popular cartoons demonstrating complicated gadgets and processes, like the Self-operating Napkin shown in the below image. You should see his drawing depicting Andy George’s sandwich project. I can send it to you in a 300MB zip file.
Avril Lavigne clearly had something to say on this topic when she wrote her song “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”. Note, I am aware of the irony of writing a blog about simplification that contains references to a modern Youtuber, a 1900’s cartoonist and turn of the century pop star, Avril Lavigne, all on the one page.But, I did also make the point that we all have a tendency to make things more complicated than we need…
So, why is that exactly?
There are many reasons why individuals and organisations might create unnecessary complexity and be resistant to its antidote: simplification.
Firstly, people don’t always go out of their way to create complexity. When was the last time you heard someone at work say, “This is great, but how can we make it more complex?”. Complexity often arises due to by-products created by improvements.
For example, researchers discovered this when jobs were greatly simplified to smaller, precise tasks that could be performed at repetition—an outcome of automation and job simplification in factories—and also a precursor to quick, delicious sandwiches and youtube videos, as it happens. The improvement in efficiency and quality, sadly, also led to a decline in meaning and satisfaction for workers. Improving engagement ultimately ends up being a more complex problem to solve, and people end up barely being able to keep their ‘head above water’ (Avril Lavigne, 2019).
Secondly, research indicates that we tend to perceive complex things as higher quality. Dubbed the ‘complexity bias’, this tendency can influence our work lives, and be a barrier to simplification.
This concept is explained by Leidy Klotz, an American professor of Engineering at The University of Virginia. Klotz described a series of interesting puzzles that revealed the tendency of participants to add rather than remove detail.
For example, in one study, participants were asked to improve a Lego© structure, and almost always added more blocks rather than remove them. In another experiment, participants were given an abstract image (shown below) and asked to create a symmetrical or ‘mirrored’ image.
There are two best responses, one is to add four shaded blocks to the left side, and the other is to remove four shaded blocks from the right side. Which would you choose?
Interestingly, only 20% of participants chose to subtract rather than add shaded blocks.
So what does this suggest?
Perhaps it is our tendency to want to do more. It could be that we are afraid to remove what appears to be working—even if it’s complicated. After all, that procedure looks technical. If we don’t have it on file, we might find ourselves in some sort of dilemma. In our workplaces, this is also seen in a never-ending list of new initiatives invented across business areas to ‘fix’ the organisational issues.
One initiative may lead to hundreds of actions, thousands of emails, dozens of face-to-face interactions, and an endless disruption to the jobs of workers.This may be, in part, driven by our instinct to add more, which is ultimately the result of the bias that we think more complexity equals better quality and effort. Instead, the real courage might be to say ‘what the hell (another Lavigne song), let’s stop doing a whole lot of things and see what happens!’.
Once you are at this point, you are ready to explore who is best for getting the simplification assignment done.
Our research indicates that people tend to differ across two main domains when it comes to their interest in simplifying and how they simplify.
The first of these domains is the Deconstruct – Construct continuum, which examines how people make sense of information to make decisions or to solve problems. Those who are closer towards the Deconstruct end of the continuum tend to be detail oriented, highly analytical and logic driven. They don’t see the sandwich. They see the bread, condiments, and fillings.
In contrast, those closer to the Construct end tend to be more abstract and non-linear in their thinking and are more inclined to look at the big picture (sandwich) rather than the finer grain details (ingredients). As an example, Einstein would likely be high on Deconstruct, while Richard Branson would likely be higher onConstruct.
The second domain we have identified is the Action – Contemplation continuum, which refers to how people tend to interact with their work environment.
Individuals closer to the Action end of this dialectic (the ‘what the hell’ end) tend to have confidence in their ability to influence and change things around them and are willing to draw on their intuition to make changes.
Those closer to the Contemplation end (the ‘why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?’ end) are likely to find value in reflection, and are more interested in understanding why things happen the way they do rather than executing change. We might predict that Michael Jordan would fall closer to theAction end, while Aristotle or Plato would likely tend towards theContemplation end.
By combining these two broad domains, it is possible to generate a ‘Simplification type’ which brings together a person’s general preferences along the two domains. Inso doing, we have found four types or categories that can be used to better understand how someone might approach simplification in the workplace.
This person exerts influence over their environment to ensure order amidst the chaos. They make sure critical activities are actioned and believe in analysing the findings—for them, action is guided by analysis.
While this means they are likely to make sound decisions, have confidence in their ability to implement change and are reliable, they can at times focus on detail at the expense of efficiency and struggle to delegate to others. When it comes to simplifying the workplace they leverage their analytical skills to identify areas of complexity in the workplace, and utilise data to drive change and track progress.
Once simplification projects are underway and being embedded, they can ensure improvements are instilled and become business as usual. However, they may not always see the bigger picture, and so it would be important for them to ensure they articulate a vision for simplification and explore ideas with others on how best to simplify.
This person makes sure that everything is well thought out and accurate. They are great at making sense of data and information and offer insightful interpretations about problems and issues at work. Unlike the Simplification Enforcer, their highlevel of detail and analysis is combined with reflectiveness and understanding, meaning they are less confident and focussed on driving change, and more interested in deriving wisdom from contemplation.
While they are likely to be accurate, thoughtful, and excellent at maximising existing processes and procedures, they are less inclined to act or trust their gut.
In extreme cases, their excessive focus on detail causes unnecessary delays in decision making. When it comes to simplifying the workplace, they are likely to havewell thought out ideas based on sound analysis but often require encouragement and coaxing to share them with others as well as the time to conduct such a thorough analysis.
Their tendency to focus on maximising existing processes means that when it comes to simplification they may need support to gain the confidence to ‘shake things up’, and assistance to see the bigger picture outside of the details.
This person actively identifies opportunities by following their intuition and likes to find the most efficient and effective ways to do things. They trust their own instinct, which means they are quick to cut through complexity and navigate to the core principles and values of a project.
This means they bring adaptive and creative solutions to novel problems, are willing to ‘think outside the box’ and have a willingness to ‘shake things up’ based on intuition and abstract thinking.
InstinctiveSimplifiers are unphased by chaos and have the ability to cut through complexity; although this means they have confidence to make change, they can also be susceptible to overlooking critical details, falling into over-confidence, or not giving sufficient weight to more comprehensive analysis for complex problems.
The InstinctiveSimplifier is likely to bring enthusiasm and strategic thinking to simplification projects, and be a driver of workplace changes. However, they may require gentle reminders to stop, reflect and check in on the details to ensure their vision doesn’t miss any critical elements and be encouraged to include others in their simplification ideas and projects.
Much like a philosopher, this person has a preference to reflect on what occurs in their work environment and to understand why.While they share the non-linear, adaptive, and creative approach of the Instinctive Simplifier, they are much less focussed on driving change and prefer to maintain the status quo.
While they are insightful and can see the big picture, they can at times be more attuned to ideas than action and overlook crucial details. Therefore, much like the Simplification Engineer, when it comes to simplification projects the Simplification Philosopher may require support to ensure crucial details are not missed.
So, which one are you? There are two broad benefits to understanding your ‘simplification personality’. First, being self-aware of your natural tendencies can assist you to draw on your unique strengths, and to be aware of some of the pitfalls that can act as barriers to simplification.
Second, when embarking on a simplification initiative, you may choose to select a team with a combination of traits that are supportive of the change. For example, a SimplificationPhilosopher may be great at developing the future state and advising on the project. A Simplification Engineer is perfect for getting into the detail and understanding current state as well as reviewing and checking that nothing important is missed.
The InstinctiveSimplifier is a great project leader who can maintain the bigger picture intent whist keeping the action moving. Finally, the Simplification Enforcer is the person you need to help drive the change all the way to the end to completion when everyone else has moved onto the next simplification initiative.
Now that you are at the end of the simplification blog, why don’t you make a sandwich (and reflect on what and how long it took to get to you) and take the quiz below to find out your type…