For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. – H. L. Mencken
I have spent a lot of time doing customer interviews – the kind of thing where you are supposed to get out of the room and go and talk to real people. Fortunately, we can do this without leaving the room these days and that makes it a lot easier to get more of them done.
What I am always surprised by is how quickly a situation that appears simple on the surface turns out to be anything but as you unpack what’s going on and see all the links and connections and misunderstandings and wrong turns and hunches and insights and flashes of inspiration and brilliance. And this makes sense for one simple reason – there are few straight lines in nature.
The world around us is organic and complex and when you look at how it works there’s nothing planned and linear about it. We were in the woods the other day and I was struck by a particular arrangement of plants – something that started like a tree but which they wound itself around another, larger tree, like a vine. A strange combination but it happened in the way it did. You wouldn’t plan that – it just happened that way.
We are able to deal with the complexity and non-linearity of nature by taming it, by chopping down the disorder and building boxes in the spaces we’ve cleared. We don’t live in harmony with nature. Instead we live cocooned away from it with the only “natural” things we have consisting of carefully fashioned artifacts.
I’m less interested, however, in the outside world than the one inside our heads. That is a space where we construct a view of the world around us and we try and make sense of that world through the sense-making methods we learn over our lifetimes. And a lot of those tools are the same ones that were very successful at taming the natural world – putting things in boxes being one of the most important.
But our thoughts, like nature itself, are often organic and non-linear and rarely as simple as a box. They are complex shapes and we have to have mental tools that match the complexity of the situations we are thinking about. Things are as complex as they have to be. We can often make things more complicated but that doesn’t mean the same thing as dealing with a complex thing.
This is something that everyone has experience with. How often do you trust a complicated piece of analysis? If you can’t understand the reasoning you’re unlikely to place your trust in the results. This is why so much “analysis” is ignored by decision makers – they don’t know what it really means or if it’s riddled with errors so they ignore it and go with their guts.
But if the reasoning is transparent and clear and they can follow it then they are more likely to make the call you are recommending. But you have to do that by presenting the situation in its complexity – not making it simpler than it is. If you make the mistake of simplifying then you’ll be caught out and have to explain the things you ignored before a decision will be made by anyone.
Here’s the takeaway. When you talk to someone about their situation take the time to listen and then listen some more. And when you think you’re done, try and listen a little bit longer. That way you might get a chance of seeing what they’re facing in as much detail as possible and you can help them do the right thing next.