Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity
Res Extensa #56 :: The difference between simplistic and simple
Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had this quote:
"I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity."
There's a profound observation here. Superficial simplicity is our first impression, a naïve jump to conclusion. Simplicity on the other side of complexity is wisdom. Wisdom comes to us in rules of thumb, heuristics, knowledge gained from hard-won experience. The experience comes from grappling with the complexity so we can distill with simplicity.
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The complexity hill climb
Let's plot understanding as a line, depth of understanding along the X-axis, complexity on Y:
At the start of the path we notice a few things, and derive simple answers based on our existing perspective and knowledge. We look at the overall elements, form a view on what's wrong and decide where to start on a solution.
But then we start to investigate. Details come to light, thorny problems no one mentioned before. "Oh, so that's why the customer doesn't use that feature. It's not because it doesn't work; it's because Frank in IT likes using this other tool he built. If we replace that, he's offended."
Turns out on the left side of the complexity, we were naive. The observed simplicity of the situation and solution ("They just need to use the 'completion date' field right and everything will work") were functions of not seeing the messy middle. The problem wasn't simple, it was simplistic.
I first heard this Holmes quote from Bob Moesta, who refers to it in the context of getting "on the demand side" of building products. We can't possibly design a best-fit solution without first going down the rabbit hole with the customer. Jobs-to-be-done teaches this exact thing: notice the context, find the pain, understand the push-pull forces of the situation.
Once we've untangled the problem as best we can, decomposing the different factors and isolating where we can help with a solution, we start to slide down the hill toward resimplifying. Taking in all of what we've now uncovered in the forensic process of examining the complexity:
Wider relevance of the idea
The same concept is seen in other fields. Einstein's theory of relativity distills with graceful simplicity an enormously complex concept — decades of wrangling complex physics into E = mc². Builders use advanced materials and clever masonry techniques to create simple, refined architecture. People love Apple's products not because they're simple in construction or design, but in their end user experience. The best solutions shoulder the burden of complexity for us. Bad solutions pass it on down the line — they don't distill enough.
I’ve noticed a similar pattern in a couple other places. Shape Up's notion of "hill charts" is the most similar to my case above. When working on a project, you first have the “work of figuring out the work” before you can get started on the work:
In the Sandler Sales methodology, they talk about the "dummy curve" (inverted, but parallel):
When you first start selling, you keep things simple, ask basic questions, don't overcomplicate. People might say you’re having “beginner’s luck”. As you learn about what you're selling and what customers do, you almost "know too much" — you answer unasked questions, you complicate conversations, dwell on things subjects too long, go too deep too early. But with enlightenment you know your product and prospects so well that you ask questions you know the answers to. You can use your talents to attract customers to come over to your product on their own.
And this concept is embodied in the "midwit" meme, with its infinite uses:
In those two examples, the left side’s simplistic understanding might lead to what you’d call “being right for the wrong reason” or knowing without being able to explain. The path to understanding passes through the complexity in the middle.
Things are never as they appear
There's still value in initial gut understanding. There's signal there that's worth preserving. But true, synthesized simplicity arrives after we thrash through the complexities, trade-offs, and pains of a problem. Wisdom is the result of synthesis, a compression algorithm for understanding.
Profound solutions are simple, but they're post-complexity simple. Elegant, robust solutions are rooted in deep understanding. Whether they're laws, books, or products, the ones with the most impact climbed over the complexity hill for us.