Fighting Complexity Bias

Why is this so complicated?

The easiest time to identify unnecessary complexity is when you’re an outsider. Before you’ve grown used to the way things have always been done. It’s the hidden value of not knowing. Your judgment isn’t clouded by knowledge. All you have is reasoning.

That’s when you’re in the mindset to ask the right questions. The high-level ones. Why is it like this?

We’ve all had experiences asking that question and getting an unexpected answer that betrays a very broken process. This post is about what to do next.

“What’s that on the stove?”
“Oh, we ran out of dish soap, so I took the bar soap from the shower and I’m heating it up so we have liquid soap for washing dishes in the sink.”

It feels like the sound of a Shepard tone in a Christopher Nolan Film. A vibrating hum of anxiety like a slowly rising boil.

I guess you could do that…but I have so many questions about why you would.
Isn’t there a store like 2 blocks from here?

What’s at the root of this? Complexity bias.

Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts.

Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one. That’s usually the option with the most assumptions and regressions. As a result, when we need to solve a problem, we may ignore simple solutions — thinking “that will never work” — and instead favor complex ones.

As the observer of complexity bias, you’re unlikely to be the person with direct decision-making power to remove it. These things have a way of working their way into an organization. Like ivy weaving up a brick building, taking hold in the mortar in a motion that solidifies its position meanwhile deteriorating the structure itself.

Over time, I’ve found a simple series of steps that works reliably well in the pursuit of simplicity. It may not be easy, but I think it is effective in giving the best chance of unwinding complexity. Whether or not you are successful, you’ll gain a lot of knowledge taking this path. You might even find you’re mistaken and the complexity is necessary, but poorly explained!

  1. Zoom Out
  2. Gather your own data
  3. Identify the components, and learn them deeply
  4. Demonstrate your knowledge

1. Zoom Out

Zoom out as far as you can and ask the most basic question to start.

Avoid thinking of the problem on a technical level – think of it as if you were describing the problem to a toddler.

This is harder and takes much longer than it sounds.

2. Gather your own data

You never want to make decisions based on filtered data. Go to the source and examine it yourself.

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”

– Goodhart’s Law

Usually you’ll find a specific person who champions the value of the current setup. Ask them what specific parts are valuable to them. Be genuine in your interest to understand.

It can be tempting to use your inquiry as a launchpad to explain where they’re wrong. Instead, you’re more likely to win their support by understanding what they value in the current setup and finding a better way for them to get that value.

Exhibit curiosity.

There is a fine line between curiosity + obstruction, and the difference lies in interest. If your focus is on knowledge acquisition, then you will always find value in asking probing questions, and others will appreciate you for it.

3. Identify the components, and learn them deeply

You’ll probably hit a roadblock. It’ll feel like game over.

Well we can’t change Thing X because we need it to cover Need Y.

Instead, it’s an opportunity. Learn everything there is to possibly know about Thing X and Need Y. 

How thing X works.

  • What it’s great at
  • What its limits are
  • How did we start using it
  • What alternatives exist, and what their strengths and weaknesses are

Learn why Need Y is so important. 

  • What happens if that need isn’t met?
  • Who will it affect?

Optimize for the long term.

Assume you will interact with this component (Thing X) again and again, so it’s in your best interest to invest up front in learning it deeply. If you do, then every time you encounter it in the future, you’ll be adept and efficient in your work.

4. Demonstrate your knowledge

Write down what you have learned & observed, using simple, straightforward language. Whether it’s called documentation, or a proposal, or anything else does not matter. The act of writing it down is what matters.

This has 3 major benefits:

  1. Its a gut check whether you know or not. You cannot explain something simply that you do not understand fully.
  2. Writing will provide it’s own form of insight.
  3. It’s the best way to help your colleagues in a growing organization to find effectiveness faster. The network effect of everyone providing good documentation yields an exponential increase in productivity over the long term.

Finally, when you need to make changes, here are a few suggestions that may help:

  • Separate problem identification from brainstorming solutions. Give yourself time to understand all the edges of the problem. You don’t want the first thing you can think of – you want the best thing you can think of.
  • Start small and build up. What is the smallest change you can make today that will result in a brighter tomorrow? 
  • Ask around. Get creative and find unexpected places that a similar type of problem was worked on in the past, and ask for advice. There’s an element of confidence involved in this – navigating relationships with colleagues to gain insight but still possibly go in your own direction.

The best part?

Even if you fail to make any meaningful change, you’ll still be better off for taking this path. You’ll gain a deep understanding of the system that no one around you has. You’ll be able to make better decisions, and eventually, one way or another, those decisions will take you away from the frustrating complexity.