The Massive Complexity of Simplicity

I feel that there comes a point in one’s career where your head gets too full of information and experience.  This is not necessarily a good thing, because what it means is that your own mental model and view of the world starts to get overly filtered according to all that information.  Where it helps is in identifying issues, opportnities or solutions that others can’t see: The Voice Of Experience.

Where it doesn’t help is when your own starting point lies outside the world view of the person/people you’re communicating with.  I’m sure there are psychological, political, and anthropological terms for this.  Like so many things this is both blindingly obvious and yet amazingly complex as a communication challenge.

For example, in my calico career I’ve spent time in PR, marketing, HR and benefits communication, change management, management consulting, usability, knowledge management, musician, journalism, internal communications and brand management (not all in different jobs I might add).

As a result, it’s entirely reasonable for someone with that background to see knowledge management implications in a brand program, or to identify the organisational process changes implied by an internal communication program.  

The challenge this presents is that this gives rise to perceptions of “overcomplicating the issue” – we just need a newsletter, an intranet microsite, a session on our values, so why are you banging on about strategy links, user experience, process change implications? 

The answer, of course, is being able to turn this complexity into simplicity, which usually takes time.  Taking time isn’t very fashionable these days in a business world driven by deadlines, quarterly results and scorecards.

Two thoughts … first, this all ties in to my ongoing exploration of “the end of internal communications” — i.e., good IC/engagement people require a wide skillset not typically found in the IC practices of the previous generation.

More importantly, second, if you can take time actively simmering things on the back burner, take time in parallel to the daily grind, the simplicity will force its way to the surface.  I’m really pleased to say after about a year of complexity (added to, of course, 15+ years of work-life) I woke up the other morning and in about 62 minutes hammered out an elegantly simple way of explaining the relationship among brand, employer brand, recruitment, and the deep/wide world of employee engagement.

Get in touch if you want to talk about it.


7 thoughts on “The Massive Complexity of Simplicity

  1. Hi Kevin,

    I knew there was a reason we had some similar thought processes about IC.

    My “calico career” has covered engineering, photography, marketing, web design, IT (networks and apps), knowledge management, change management, project management and now cross-cultural consulting.

    I’m struggling with a related but different set of “complex mental connections” to IC questions, mostly around the interaction between what might be called “operational communications” (which might encompass day to day communication, process and procedure communication and knowledge management) and IC. It comes up somewhat in the day job because companies that have issues between groups of different cultures have “communication problems” that range all the way from “day to day teamworking” to the kind of things people call “strategic internal communications.”

    All this overlaps with your focus on the connections between employer brand and IC in that statement “i.e., good IC/engagement people require a wide skillset not typically found in the IC practices of the previous generation.”

    My own interest in employer brand comes more out of my hobby – thinking about the future of knowledge intensive organisations (employee engagement issues are a big part of that jigsaw). Thus I’d love to talk with you more about your simple explanation of the things you are focusing on not only to hear where you’re taking it, but also in case it gives me some extra stimulus to find the simplicity in my own complexity.

  2. As always, very interesting… I’d actually argue (given my “new world view”) that our complex mental connections challenge is in the same set, not different sets – connection strategy to operation and IC to “R.O.W.” communications. Let’s chat soon!

  3. Great post, Kevin. I think you’ve hit upon one of the fundamental challenges we face as a profession.

    The idea that “whole systems” thinking leads to overcomplication and work that is deemed “out of scope” by clients is of course ludicrous, but it’s part and parcel of the general perception that we as communicators are only there to do the tactical implementation, rather than recognising that our knowledge and skills are ideally suited to ensuring the development of a clear, consistent and compelling strategy. (Indeed, overcoming these perceptions is one of the main reasons I decided to do an MBA.)

    Exploring all those connections should be in scope, precisely because they are the key to delivering the simplicity you’re talking about. We need people to understand the distinction between process and outcome, i.e. that whilst the former may be complex, it’s needed in order to arrive at a simple solution – e.g. that “core thought” that, whilst simple and elegant in expression, loses nothing in terms of depth of meaning.

    That’s where your “information and experience” comes in, and you should never knock it. Mike quoted Dirty Harry, but I’ll go with Edward de Bono:

    “In order to make something simple, you have to know your subject very well indeed.”

  4. Like Dan, I’m a fan of de Bono. But another way of putting the point would be to say that you need to understand the simplicity at the far side of complexity (what Will Shutz called “profound simplicity”).

    Too often, management’s “keep it simple” mantra leads to simplistic rather than simple ‘solutions’.

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