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COMPLEX VS SIMPLE - WHICH IS BETTER - September 14, 2021

We’ve all heard of the KISS principle - “keep it simple, stupid”.


There is merit to simplicity when arriving at a solution or strategy for a given situation. A simple approach is easier to understand by those involved and may be less prone to errors when implementing.


But is simpler always better? Does a simple approach adequately address all factors of the situation? Does a simpler approach give you, your team and/or your organization, the best outcome?


As leaders and team members it’s our obligation to do our best and achieve the most. That means that taking the easy approach may not be the best way forward. Could choosing the path of least resistance be akin to laziness? I realize that’s harsh, but why not explore, understand and potentially implement a more complex approach that gets more done and yields a better outcome?


A complex approach can be harder to implement and can take more time to formulate and execute; it may prolong a

period of uncertainty, which can get uncomfortable for those involved. Complex solutions and approaches can often require patience, and that is something that seems to be in short supply these days.


I’m an entrepreneur and C-Level executive. My career has given me years of experience in dealing with uncertainty, multiple variables, conflicting agendas and rapidly evolving fact patterns. This is quite common in early-stage start-up companies, and in growing scale-up companies. As a result I’m used to dealing with and coming up with complex solutions. I’m not suggesting we always look for the hard road ahead; I am recommending the best path forward always be sought, even if it means embracing and working through complexity.


Trying to deliver products or solutions to a customer who’s own circumstances are evolving, while dealing with an internal team who were given a schedule or parameters earlier that have now changed does happen often. Dealing with vendors in the supply chain will also introduce variables into our equation. Dealing with these scenarios successfully requires adaptability and flexibility, regardless of whether a simple solution is implemented or a complex one.


A simple solution to the above example would be to simply give the customer what they want and absorb whatever changes or additional costs are incurred...or even decline the order when the customer makes changes. Simple, right? The best outcome - definitely not!.


As a vendor you’re going to be flexible and accommodate customers, to the best of your ability. You can explore options with the customer that are mutually acceptable...complexity #1. You’re going to speak with the internal team and see if schedules can be adjusted...complexity #2. You’re going to speak with your own suppliers and see if orders/timing can be adjusted...complexity #3. And, you’re going to need to keep track of it all and document all the variables in-play as the conversations unfold; Most importantly, you need to regularly communicate what’s happening as it unfolds with your team. You’ll also want to keep in contact with the customer.


In this simple example the complex solution is the better way to go. Your organization achieved its objectives and maintained good relationships with a customer (customers will see the extra effort vendors put in for them...that goodwill comes in handy in the future when a good solution isn’t available to a challenge); your team demonstrated the ability to adapt and excel, and you learned your vendors have adaptability, as well. A complex solution that is implemented well shows that your organization can pass difficult business tests and could do so again in the future. This in itself will boost the confidence of the entire organization.


Similar to the KISS principle is the concept of Occam’s Razor, or the law of parsimony. This states essentially, that when faced with competing explanations for the same phenomenon, the simplest is likely the correct one. Occam’s razor is the antithesis of a complex explanation or solution. The two concepts aren’t exactly the same, but our thinking towards each is worth exploring.


The KISS principle requires less effort and is less error-prone. Using the concept of Occam’s razor also requires less thinking. But does it lead to the correct assessment of a situation? Does it truly bring out and help us understand all of the underlying motivations behind someone’s actions or attitude? Not necessarily. People are complex creatures and often digging deeper to understand why something is happening gets us to the true explanation. Getting to the true explanation then can lead to better responses and courses of action.


Why is a team member difficult to work with on a given project? The simple explanation could be that they are simply not a nice person and not a good team player. What if there is more to it than that? What if there are issues in their personal life that they’ve been unsuccessful in compartmentalizing? What if they are frustrated with their role in the company? What if they are unhappy with their compensation or their recent assignments? Any or all of those factors could be influencing their behaviour? As leaders and managers it’s our job to check-in with our team and have a good handle on their state of mind and anything that may be impacting their ability to deliver their best performance.


Accepting the simple explanation could result in that person being sidelined from a project unnecessarily or even being removed from the organization. Wouldn’t it be a shame for this to occur when taking time to speak with the offending person in-depth could lead to a better understanding of the underlying circumstances, help that person get to a better place and help retain someone who has added value to the organization in the past and should add value going forward? Isn’t looking for a more detailed explanation the better way to go?


This post is contrarian to both the KISS principle and to the concept of Occam’s razor. There are times when simple is better and looking for the obvious explanation is in fact the best. But not always. Always take the time to go deeper and understand the roots of what’s happening; always take the time to explore the better solution.


Again, simpler may not always be better.


Thank you for investing time in reading this post. Questions and comments are always welcome.


Shail Paliwal


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