Lane Desborough: The Value of Simplicity in a Complex World

July 30, 2013

Healthcare IT, Systems

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity” – Oliver Wendell Holmes.

When our commercial reach exceeds our technical grasp; when the systems we develop become too complex to understand, then we must either stop to remove complexity, or run the risk of loss. A system can be so simple there are obviously no errors, or so complex there are no obvious errors.

Complexity propagates downstream in a system’s life cycle, exponentially increasing the time and cost of system development, testing, regulating, marketing, selling, operating, and training.

For a variety of organizational and personal reasons, it is much, much harder to remove complexity than add it. To quote Albert Einstein, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

The single most valuable thing system engineers can do for their organizations is facilitate the transformation from simplistic to complex to simplified through the selective, judicious, expedited, coordinated, and informed application of sound, data-driven system engineering practices such as concept engineering trade studies, set-based concurrent engineering, modeling and simulation, retrospective data analysis, interactive data visualization, and prospective, well-designed experiments.

I don’t believe engineers are adding complexity out of malice, or for fun, or to satisfy their egos or curiosity. Instead, there are two factors driving the increase in complexity: governance and capabilities.

Governance: There are a host of external factors (making the quarter, cost-plus contracting, sunk-cost fallacy, HiPPOs or Highest Paid Person’s Opinion, Sinclair’s Law) which compress schedules, constrain simplification efforts, or encourage complexity, thereby preventing engineers from removing complexity.

Capabilities: Many engineers lack the experience or skills to remove complexity. It can take decades of progressive increases in responsibility for an engineer to amass the experience necessary to cope with the unique challenges of a large, complex, software-intensive sociotechnical system. Do you really want your engineers “learning on the job” with your most complex, highest-stakes systems?

The ultimate lair of complexity is software (as embodied in firmware, control algorithms, IT, databases, computer models, and simulations). Software is creating new system safety challenges, as explained by Nancy Leveson in her new book Engineering a Safer World. As a simple example, I have been doing some “recreational” software development to analyze data coming from my son’s insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor. I wound up with all sorts of junk in my program—nonfunctional/dead-end/testing code—the byproducts of development. If I hadn’t taken the time to clean it up, I would now be carrying a “technical debt” forward, putting my son at risk.

A super-complex system is the hallmark of inexperienced engineers in an inexperienced organization. Pursuit of simplicity is not simple. A simple system belies the complexity of thought that went into its development.

It takes upfront time, effort, practice, intelligence, and skill to simplify. Organizations must be willing to accept the short term costs of removing complexity. Pay now or pay later.

Lane Desborough is a product strategist with Medtronic.

Additional reading:

“Steve Jobs and His Art of Simplicity”

Will Disruptive Innovations Cure Health Care?

“The Simplicity Cycle”

“The Laws of Subtraction: How to Innovate in the Age of Excess Everything”

8 Wastes of Lean Manufacturing

Eric Berlow: Simplifying Complexity

Peggy Holman: Engaging Emergence

“The Simplicity Thesis”

Jugaad Innovation



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One Comment on “Lane Desborough: The Value of Simplicity in a Complex World”

  1. Bob Stott Says:

    This is the most informed article I have read on complexity from an engineering perspective. Paragraph Four (“The single most valuable thing”) is a real gem and provides a process. To the Einstein quote I would add another from Einstein, “It is seeing with complexity and more dimensions that enables the development of simple solutions.” I am sure Oliver Wendell Holmes would have appreciated the quote.

    For those interested in how a brilliant quantum physicist always returned to his engineering roots, I heartily recommend “The Strangest Man: A biography of Paul Dirac” by Graham Farmelo.

    Meanwhile the interest in complexity as a science (a leadership science?) gathers pace — 34 million hits on Google. A science that means engineers, and everybody else for that matter, will need to develop new skill sets if we are to get to “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

    Perhaps the engineers will get there first!

    Read again para two ‘Complexity propagates’ and think about how much ‘non-value adding activity’ is propagated in your organisation and its processes and think ‘entropy’ the amount of energy you are wasting – go back to para four and think about how you are going to ‘facilitate’ a transformation. All makes this a very powerful post with some great and simple advice from the other side of complexity.


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