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TBM 242: The Simplicity Fetish
...and why it is so draining and burnout-inducing
I believe the corporate world is awash in Simplicity Fetishism. It is damaging, draining, and ultimately only beneficial to those who benefit from the power dynamic.
Let's get into this with some stories—one not work related.
You have a complex health insurance issue in the United States. You call the health insurance company, and after navigating a maze of "Press X for Y" prompts you find a real human and spend three minutes explaining the problem as carefully as possible. The agent waits patiently, asking the occasional clarifying question.
You: "Thanks for being patient. I hope that explains the issue. Can you help?"
Agent: "I'm sorry, I can't assist you. I need to transfer you to the special claims investigation unit."
You: "OK…will I need to explain that again?"
Agent: "Yes, but they can access the raw rejection log from the last seven days. My system only has approved rejections. It is a regulatory thing."
Later that day, you're on with your manager for your biweekly thirty-minute 1:1. Time flies, and every minute counts when meetings are this short. They have an important meeting with their manager tomorrow morning and need to deliver a simplified version of the pitch you've been working on. A lot has changed in the last two weeks, and you're struggling to get her up to speed.
Manager: "I need you to simplify this…three bullets max!"
You: "I know. I'm trying to make sure we're aligned, and then we can summarize. There's a good amount of nuance to understand, so you're ready. The team had four one-hour meetings, and we uncovered some good alternatives. I can crank out the bullets afterward."
Manager: "I understand. We just need to find a way to boil this all down. We'll have three to five minutes to cover this if that."
Your manager presents something the next day that fails to capture the plan. It's not her fault—everyone is overloaded. Five minutes after her meeting, your Slack DMs are lighting up from the direct reports of your manager's peer group trying to make sense of the plan. You spend the next three days doing damage control and realigning people.
In both stories, we find an "impedance mismatch" between the complexity of the problem and the systems or time allocated to solve them. No matter how hard we try, we cannot bend a problem or situation requiring nuanced communication into a purely transactional, stable, and unchanging problem. The harder we try to do that (or the more we are forced by our environment, incentives, skills, etc.), the harder it becomes to find a way forward. What might have been difficult but within reach now becomes intractable.
Try as we might—and as uncomfortable as this makes driven managers leaders—we can't cheat the physics of complex, socio-technical systems. We can "dance" with the system, but we can't bend the system to our will (thank you, Donella Meadows).
Let's flip the manager example around a little bit. Imagine if all the direct reports were in a room together. Everyone was trying to convey their thorny challenges in detail—stickies (virtual or otherwise) paint the walls (virtual or otherwise). Everyone is jockeying for influence and visibility. It's full-on information and cognitive overload. How effective would that be, especially if large group workshops are uncommon and not a strong muscle at the company?
This is ALSO an example of the physics of the problem because information and cognitive overload create their form of impedance mismatch (Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais discuss this at length in Team Topologies). This is why large-scale team resets involving dozens or hundreds of people require lots of facilitation, time, and care. They are "unsustainable" because people can dip into those situations but can't handle them if they are everyday events.
Many organizations have leaders who are so busy and overstretched that they can barely pay attention to something for more than ten minutes. Meanwhile, armies are working to boil complex things down into "simple" summaries, so those precious ten minutes are "productive." These requests go up and down the organizational network with varying amounts of information loss—10 pages crunched down to 1 page to 1 paragraph to 4 words and back again—over and over like an elaborate telephone game where each hop mandates summarization.
It's wild if you think about it. Talk about inefficiency.
The big problem is as follows. Instead of stepping back and asking WHY this is happening or whether it is HELPING, the work world seems to adopt the attitude that even more simplification is required! We're becoming ever more allergic to anything that smacks of the way work happens.
Let me requote Cat Hicks' wonderful Twitter thread on this:
Doing research with developer teams, something that really strikes me is how much people look for ways to make complex problems easy rather than make it easy to work on complex problems
What I mean is, sometimes it's really useful to admit we just are trying to accomplish tough things. Asking how we can support our teams who NEED the time and space to work through that, it's often a much more tractable lever than trying to change the inherent nature of the work
I think it behooves me to say as a psychologist here that I think people are actually really excellent at working on complex problems! It's one of the reasons research with developers is so great. Overall devs love to learn, love to be curious, love to innovate. It is core stuff.
What would it look like if we could ask, "how do I make this the absolute best environment for complex problem-solving" instead of "how do I take away all these annoying hard problems." The stuff we want to accomplish in the world is hard. But can be joyful to accomplish.
Back to our discussion
Going back to our manager scenario, the right questions to ask here include:
Is there alignment among the manager's peers on the intricacy and fluid nature of the challenge? Or is there a gap in understanding that needs to be bridged?
Given the immediate flood of DMs after the meeting, what does that reveal about the communication channels in place? Why were key stakeholders out of the loop if the issue was so influential? What does this indicate about the informal organizational structure and existing dependencies?
Could a targeted mini-offsite between you and your manager be beneficial for achieving a shared understanding and strategic alignment?
Are the right feedback loops in place to quickly adapt and realign strategies when circumstances change? Or is the team stuck in a rigid structure that hampers adaptability?
The three-bullet thing is a smell. Unpacking the actual problem takes time.
In a sense, impedance mismatches, where we experience efforts at summarization and simplification that break things, are signals that something needs changing. It isn't realistic to firehose information everywhere, but at the same time, it isn't helpful to try to crunch it down beyond recognition.
You need effective interfaces acknowledging that localized complexity—dynamic and vibrant collaboration and communication—can be highly beneficial, and "simple" messages between parts of the system are necessary. But you can't, unfortunately, cheat physics and solve the problem of leaking complexity with oversimplification—no matter how much we fetishize simplicity.
This is one of the big work problems we need to solve in the "modern workplace." The level of information load and "information process" is incredibly draining and saps creativity and outcomes.
The first step?
Pay attention to when your efforts at synthesis are helping, and when they are hurting.