Beyond complexity lies simplicity

By: Debbie Stocker

Browsing Twitter yesterday, I happened across a tweet that intrigued me.
Screen capture of a tweet by @lucgaloppin. The tweet reads, "Simplicity often lies at the other side of complexity (Eric Berlow Video on"
Following the trail, I found myself at TED watching a video of a short talk given by Eric Berlow. An ecological networks scientist, Eric approaches problems with a network or systems perspective to connect the dots amongst problems, concepts, people, projects and more.

In a highly succinct and lucid talk, Berlow demonstrates that complex doesn’t always equal complicated and shows how visualising vastly complex situations, systems and connections can actually lead to surprisingly simple answers and insights. He even distilles and crystallises an infamous Powerpoint slide that was designed to portray the complexity of American military strategy in Afghanistan and of which General Stanley A. McChrystal is said to have remarked, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war!”

If you have a spare 3 minutes (the talk really is that short!), I’d really encourage you to watch the video.

For me, the stand out quotes from Berlow were…

The more you step back and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers. And it’s often different than the simple answer you started with.

…Simplicity often lies on the other side of complexity, so for any problem, the more you can zoom out and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of zooming in on the simple details that matter most.

You may be wondering however why I am writing about this on a blog entitled ‘Business Musings’. Well, for me, what Berlow is saying really does apply to business. Matt and I have oftentimes found that the more one steps back and embraces complexity in strategy, marketing, performance improvement and more, the clearer the situation becomes. With complexity also comes an increased likelihood that you will find an answer that delivers the outcomes you are looking for.

Chatting to Matt earlier, he cited the example of sales being a frequent focus of financial objectives and concerns. When targets aren’t being met and a business isn’t growing at the rate you hoped it would be, it’s tempting to assume that you simply need to drive more sales and for your sales people to work harder. Their targets have been set, they must achieve them!

However, this can be a simplistic and naive outlook. In reality, although a failure to reach sales targets could be due to the underperformance of your sales people, there are a whole host of other factors that might be influencing this outcome. It may be that your target market is declining or your market has shifted such that your product or service no longer meets the needs of your audience; a new competitor or a substitute product/service may have appeared in your marketplace making it difficult for you to compete; your marketing may be failing to generate an adequate number of leads or to encourage trust and loyalty to your brand; your branding and positioning may have become outdated or may no longer be relevant to your market; or it could be that your sales targets are in fact inaccurate. And that is just a handful of the factors that could be involved. To paraphrase Berlow’s vocabulary, by focusing only on the sales and finance ‘nodes’ in this situation, you risk missing the fundamental root cause that is in reality your key to success.

In almost all business situations, it’s vital to examine the broader situation, to consider a host of contributing variables, and in the end to hopefully arrive at a clear, accurate and potentially simple solution. Whilst embracing complexity doesn’t necessarily guarantee either success or simplicity, I would personally take complexity over a simple but fatally flawed outlook any day.

Article by:

Debbie Stocker

Debbie is director of Stocker Partnership, a strategy and innovation consultancy. She's a great facilitator, researcher and strategist. With an approach that is both creative and methodical, Debbie combines her expertise in psychology with a strong commercial focus. Her signature strengths include kindness and a love of learning. She also line manages the office dog. Find out more

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