Why Do We Overcomplicate Things?


Thursday, 7.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

While humans tend to be conservative, sticking with what they like, children are utterly conservative: they want things as they were last week, which is the way the world has always been. – Neil Gaiman

Ideas and concepts live in many places and it is time to turn back to TED for some inspiration.

Inspiration like this talk by George Whitesides, Professor of Chemistry.

Professor Whitesides tells us that while a lot of work goes into looking at complexity very little is done on simplicity.

Which is interesting – you can write papers and get very excited about complex things – but simple things are hard.

They’re hard because you can’t get away with fuzzy thinking – it’s simple to see when something is wrong.

Now, I was wondering about this in the context of innovation.

We often think that innovation is about something dramatically different, something entirely new, something radical.

But there it is often hard to tell whether something is new and wonderful or whether it is crazy and outlandish.

Which is why the quote that starts this post by Neil Gaiman is worth keeping in mind.

Imagine having to sell your child on the idea of vegetables.

There’s something hardwired in children to believe that brightly coloured thing are evil – vibrant greens and red are poisonous.

It probably has a perfectly sensible evolutionary history to it.

Kids are often quite happy eating the same thing over and over again, the same cereals, the same porridge and fruit combinations.

Try and surprise them with a vegetable curry for breakfast and see what happens.

The point really is that people don’t trust change, don’t trust your fancy new fangled ideas and really want you to just go away.

So, what should you do?

Well, you could ignore everyone and create the next generation of incredibly complex and world changing software and hardware technology.

As long as you realise that the odds of success are stacked against you.

But, if you follow Whiteside’s advice, you need to ask yourself if what you do has four characteristics.

First, is it reliable – can you predict what it’s going to do most of the time?

If something works then that’s a good start.

Next, is it cheap?

If something is cheap, Whitesides says, someone will find a use for it.

Then, do you get a lot of value for the cost – is it something that is actually very useful?

And finally is it a building block – can you stack it to make things?

Now, the image that comes to mind – the simplest, cheapest thing that exemplifies this is a brick – a literal brick.

It’s reliable – you know how it works.

It’s cheap.

You can stack it.

And you can build a cathedral with it.

In the world of computing the Unix philosophy is based on pretty much the same principles.

The thing is that nobody starts with something simple.

We start with a mess – and in our first attempts to understand or build something we make it complicated.

And then we learn and start stripping away – refactoring and redesigning – trying to make it simpler.

But that’s easier said than done.

Often it’s easier to throw everything away and start again.

But with the benefit of the learning you’ve gained along the way.

The answer, perhaps, to why we overcomplicate things is because that’s the easy thing to do.

Ironically, it takes thought and effort to keep things simple.

And that’s what makes it more valuable to us as humans.


Karthik Suresh

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