Nick's Notes

Complexity

An old boss of mine, Marjorie Scardino, when she was at Pearson used to say “make things simple. It’s not always easy but it’s usually right”. I’ve quoted her before and I think she’s right – it isn’t easy.

There is a lot of discussion about Universal Credit at the moment. Partly because the budget is coming, and vested interests are angling for more money, partly because the roll out is slow – it started in 2013 and may well go on for another 5 years, and partly because although its intentions are good there are individual challenges as people are enrolled on to it. As an example, Universal Credit pays in arrears, and that leaves people with a gap to cover, which many just can’t do. The simple answer, called for by the opposition, is to make more money available to help transition people onto the new way of paying benefits. Yet promises on tax levels and other spending priorities conspire to make that not so simple for the Government. The simple principle at the heart of Universal Credit is that work will always pay – no longer will there be benefit traps which dissuade people from working more because they are worse off. That’s simple and it is incredibly hard to do.

Complexity builds up in many different ways. Each interface between individuals, teams, organisations and systems introduces waste and potentially complexity. Lean engineering as pioneered by Toyota sought to eliminate as many hand offs as possible. Delays introduce complexity – how to handle a gap, prioritise restarts and ensure no information is lost or changed during the delay introduces rules and systems and rework that is not needed if there is no pause in the approach. Complexity emerges over time as separate and later initiatives impact things that have come before, sometimes unknowingly, and then have to be retro fitted thereby introducing more complexity. And multiple views of what is right also add complexity as with my simple example above. Complexity increases with reducing certainty.

Simplicity is hard. That is why Universal Credit has taken so long to roll out. It is a massive IT project, it brings together 6 previously separate benefits which had, in some cases, contradictory rules. People can handle this, and with the right levels of authority, take an overall view which, at the detail level, may not be absolutely in line with the rules. I’ve written about this in many ways before – digital vs analogue and applying rules vs feelings especially in people management.

The modern world is complex and simplifying it doesn’t appear to be on the agenda. Our fear of giving offence adds so much complexity to day to day interactions. And our willingness to trust has almost gone. There is no deference to a benevolent state. There is little trust in any authority. The approach that JFK spoke of in his inaugural speech as President of the United States included the words “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” also seems to have long gone. And by the way read the whole speech – it remains a powerful invocation of positive power and influence, something that seems unthinkable these days.

But in most people’s lives they get by because they know the other people they are interacting with, they respect their boundaries because they know them – the boundaries and the person. There is a degree of certainty. It is when it comes to generalising, we get into all sorts of complex problems because we need to take every possible case into consideration – and that can’t be done.

There is no simple conclusion to this blog. We can’t and wouldn’t want to return to a world where a simple, single Judeo-Christian moral framework broadly applied to all. Things look set to get more complex before, perhaps, a new simplicity can emerge.

But do your bit. In your organisation, with the benefit that it has a guiding mind, and its clarity of purpose, become a champion of simplicity. Make it easy for customers to buy from you. Make it easy for colleagues to work with you and your team. Fight complexity, especially when it emerges from people who think they’re being clever. Keep it simple.

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