Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Problem Solving: Over Complicating Simplicity

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. - Leonardo da Vinci

Simplicity is the glory of expression. - Walt Whitman

In mulling over a challenging problem the other day, my mind replayed an event that I experienced a few years ago that made me realize that I had been exploring the problem incorrectly.

One beautiful mid-summer’s evening, I found myself on a wide, slow moving river, accompanied only by the evening song of birds and the whistle of my fly rod.  As I made my last cast for the evening, I was at one with nature when suddenly I felt a strike on my fishing fly.

It was big, perhaps the largest thing I had ever hooked and when I felt the weight of it bend my fly rod, I knew that if I didn’t play it carefully, I was bound to lose what was no doubt the greatest fish I had ever landed.

Well, I thought it was a fish but in the waning light of the evening, I suddenly realized that what was moving towards me on top of the water wasn’t the fish of my dreams but was in fact a muskrat entangled in my fishing line.

As it came ashore, I was perplexed with the conundrum in front of me.  Had I hurt the animal?  How could I get it free?  Was there a game warden handy or some other person with knowledge of how to deal with such situations?  How would I retrieve a fishing fly that I had used for years and which was one of my favourites?  Should I just cut the line and let it go (probably the worst idea because of the threat of line entanglement for the animal)?

As I stood there frantically wondering what I should do, two hikers came along and after one of them noted the obvious (that I appeared to have caught a muskrat on a fishing fly), we all stood there discussing a myriad of potential solutions.

Three representatives of the allegedly most advanced species on Earth stood on the riverbank thinking through the problem that grew with ever increasing complexity and urgency when I noticed that the muskrat had been working on its own solution.  It had been hooking at the fly with its paw and suddenly it released itself from my tackle.  Trotting to the water, it slid into the water quietly and swam off into the sunset.

The three of us looked at each other in silence before laughing that the small animal, once left to its own devices, had found its own solution despite our best efforts to complicate the situation.

We were so busy thinking through a complex solution that we had failed to recognize that simple solutions were within our reach … if we were willing to allow ourselves to see them or allow them to unfold.

As my thoughts returned to the problem at hand, I realized that we had taken a problem that had been made overly complex with too many theories and idea exchanges.  In fact, the solution at the core of the difficulty was simple and relatively painless if enacted quickly and with courage.

Those of us exploring the problem, being complex individuals, had happily pursued a different path, seeking a complex solution that to us was necessary for an obviously complex problem.

And once a lot of people saw complexity in the simplicity before us, we ended up moving towards the picture below instead of moving towards a solution.

A few harmless flakes working together can unleash an avalanche of destruction.

With the realization that we had gone down the wrong path, a simpler solution was obtained and a lot of painful “spinning” was avoided.

The Bottom Line

It is true that there are many complex problems in the world that have complex solutions (if they have solutions at all).

Fortunately or unfortunately for us, many of the challenges that we deal with are in fact not as complex as we imagine and with that understanding, we need to be cognizant of these ideas expressed by two brilliant men:

Every problem has in it the seeds of its own solution. If you don't have any problems, you don't get any seeds. - Norman Vincent Peale

The Five Minute Rule: Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell you the solution in the first five minutes. – Gerald Weinberg

Our personal and professional lives are filled with unlimited positive potential that is interspersed with difficulties and challenges.

When we are confronted with a challenge, we should not automatically assume that because it looks complex, it must therefore be complex.  In order to understand what is before us before we “dive in”, we should pause, breathe and then ask ourselves two questions:

  1. Why do we believe this to be a complex problem?
  2. How do we know?

You may be surprised what the answers tell you about what lays before you.

In service and servanthood,


Addendum – Understanding Cause and Effect – May 22, 2014

Part of the difficulty with creating complexity from simplicity is that many people fail to apply the time, energy or money necessary to understand the difference between cause and effect.

For example, I was reading a report this morning about a number of organizations that are struggling to understand how to reduce the level of employee absenteeism.  They were tackling the problem by tightening up the process of needing a doctor’s note, changing how much time people get for “sick time”, changing how people get paid for short and long term absenteeism, etc.

However, in all of the discussions around these types of things, I noticed that the report authors never asked a simple question:

Why are the employees absent in the first place?

In a different example, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador have struggled for years with outmigration, the notion that many families are leaving the province in droves.  The Government has spent millions of dollars tackling the “problem” of outmigration by running advertising campaigns to encourage people to stay when they fail to recognize that outmigration is a symptom of a larger problem, that being a lack of good paying jobs, a strong education system and a robust healthcare system.

I wonder if it comes down a “feel good” thing, being able to show people that something is being done when the lack of time, energy, money, knowledge or competence actually prevents a real solution from being created.

What do you think?

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