Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Life: Making Complexity Out of Simplicity

In the mid 2000’s , I was traveling outside the country and through my own failure to pay attention to detail, I discovered that my residency visa had expired.

I was referred to a number of immigration lawyers who spent several weeks pontificating about the best way to correct the problem, including creative solutions that involved obtaining temporary visas to get back into the country, plans to convert those temporary visas to the right visa type once inside the country, extra plans in case obtaining the temporary visa didn’t work, extra extra plans to cover the issues that might arise in converting the temporary visa to the permanent one and so on.

That was just Plan A.  You should have seen Plan B.

After listening to these guys play chess with my Life for weeks, I asked a simple question – “What if I present myself at the border, admit that the visa had expired because of my own failure to pay attention and ask to be allowed back into the country?”

There was silence in the meeting until one of the lawyers said “It might work – we haven’t tried that before”.  Another lawyer said “Well, it might work, but photocopy your visa first in case they confiscate it, here’s what you should tell them if they ask “x” and if they don’t like that answer, then you should say ……..”.

Simplicity wasn’t something they adjusted to easily.

A few days later, I showed up at the border, flashed my expired visa, plead guilty to stupidity, was invited into a back room where a background check was conducted and my visa was renewed on the spot.

I wonder if those lawyers felt any guilt when they filed their invoices.

Another example of complexity over simplicity

A beverage retailer in Canada has been struggling with getting their associates to upsell clients on specific items in the store.  I understand training has been planned in the past and while more training is planned for the future, the lack of upselling has been a mystery to some.

As a business guy with an inordinate amount of curiosity, I conducted my own unofficial survey at several locations.  After assuring staff at multiple locations that I wasn’t “shopping them”, I asked them why they didn’t try to upsell me on product “x”.

The answer was pretty consistent across two reasons.

1. I didn’t know we were supposed to.

2. I hate upselling because I feel guilty that I am pushing myself on the customer.

I don’t know what training has been offered in the past (although I have been told that it’s fairly extensive) but I have a suspicion that it didn’t hit these two simple areas effectively, creating the perceived need for extra layers of training when the problem is sitting right in front of them.

Asking direct questions to get to the root cause of an issue is far more effective than burying the root cause under ever-thickening layers of training.

The IT Industry – A Major Offender

However, when it comes to creating complexity out of simplicity, the industry that I have lived in for 30 years is one of the champions.  Here’s an example typical of the ones that IT folks like to share at conferences as we cry into our Diet Cokes and cold pizza.

A client of mine a few years ago decided they were going to architect a system to track their hardware assets (even though cost-effective off-the-shelf offerings have existed for years).

After two years of building a system that could have been used to put a human safely on Mars and despite the fact that the system demonstrated attributes such as usability, extensibility, flexibility, adaptability, cross-platfom-ability  (“ity” words are critical in system design, you see) and other amazing attributes, the project was scrapped after a single, silly flaw was discovered.

It was unable to track hardware assets.

The engineers were so focused on the ultimate system that they forgot what the problem was that they were trying to solve.  They seemed unfazed by the fact that their application didn’t serve the needs of the people who paid for it (“the user just didn’t get it”) and they remember it fondly as one of the best architectures they ever created.  For a great summary of why enterprise architecture programs fail, please go here.

Maybe the CDC or the Surgeon General need to officially label ego as a potential cause of “blindness”.

I have seen the enemy and it is us

When it comes to our personal and professional lives, I can’t help but wonder if the reason Life seems so complicated to so many is because we have allowed it to become overcomplicated by way of our own actions and not just the actions of others.

We seem to have reached a conclusion that creative minds that are capable of creating complex solutions must do so simply because we can.

It’s almost as if we are saying that we are wasting our brain unless we create the most creative solution possible.  Anything less would be a demonstration of a lack of gratitude for “our gifts”.

Perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that many of today’s challenges become bigger, uglier ones when we layer on creative, complicated solutions ….

…. when all they called for were mundane, albeit less-sexy ones.

I have a solution

If many of our solutions were better able to answer the questions of “why” (especially in the form of the 5 why’s) and “how do I know” , then the reasons why we create this additional, unnecessary complexity could be understood and potentially nullified.

I have a few theories in mind but I won’t share them until I have lobbed them into a room filled with lawyers and system engineers so that they can produce a sexier model that describes my theories more effectively.

I don’t know if the result will be of value to anyone.

But it sure will be a thing of beauty to behold.

And for many, it will be useful to hide behind,  to justify outrageous, unexplainable budgets or to provide the groundwork for version 2.0, which will be even more gorgeous (because I’m going to make sure that its requirements cover all the “ity” words and maybe has a few Latin words sprinkled in for effect, something like “Si hoc signum legere potes, operis boni in rebus Latinus alacribus et fructuosis potiri potes!”).

Or maybe … just maybe …. it’s time to think smarter.

Not more …  not less … just smarter.

Do you strive for simplicity or complexity when solving problems?

Are you sure?

How do you know?

Note: Answers shorter than 1 page will be submitted to my “Creative Solution Embellishment Department” and inflated to 100+ pages before being accepted for review, since I don’t want to describe simple, mundane stuff to others when they ask “What did you do today?”

In service and servanthood,


PS There are in fact GREAT lawyers and system engineers (and others) out there who understand the importance of leveraging simplicity in their solutions.  We need to highlight and emulate them before our world systems, whether in the areas of IT, judicial, legislative or other areas get so complicated that such systems exceed the ability of their creator to correct, direct or control them.

If it hasn’t already happened, that is.

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