Simplicity beyond Complexity

I believe one of the most important survival skills right now is the ability to do complexity management. But let me start with a story.

In the beginning of the year our pool turned green… then greener… and eventually it was super-ugly-green. We did everything we normally did: tested it, gave it chlorine and lots of other chemicals, took water samples to the “experts” at the pool shop. Added more chemicals and ended up spending thousands of rands. All the old solutions did not work. Apparently we had a new kind of problem. A complex one. We even, after “expert advice”, emptied the pool to 60% of its volume, refilled it… still green. Then we got a pool fundi out. He assessed the water-system, decided on a simple action plan, and within a few hours it started to clear. Within a day the pool was beautiful. The lessons?

  1. Your understanding of the problem might be the problem.
  2. Sometimes old solutions don’t work for new problems.
  3. Make sure you get help from the right

The Covid-19 reality is not only complicated, but indeed very complex (with a lot of factors and realities interacting with each other). Its impact is something that we cannot fully predict or control. Old solutions just don’t work, at least not in the same way. I think perhaps somewhere in the future the way leaders, countries and companies are now making their decisions in these complex times will be good material for academical research.

Our biases and filters come into play. To say that “lives are more important than money” is valid. And in the same way is it correct to say: “we need the economy to stay alive”. But in both cases we are oversimplifying the matter.

On a daily basis I hear so many opposing views from well-informed, clever people. For example, some will say the lockdown-strategy is a good one: it kept the virus from spreading wildly and gave the health system time to prepare for the upward infection-curve. Rather safe now, than sorry later.  Therefore, you should only lift it in phases. Others say we should be braver – risk now, win later. The lockdown is keeping a lot of needed medical services away from vulnerable people with serious medical conditions other than Covid-19. Lockdown destroys the economy, impacts the poor very negatively, and that might cost us millions of lives in the longrun. And so we can go on with many more opinions, perspectives and arguments – many with scientific facts and stats. Off course there are also the conspiracy theories, of which some may at times sound (and perhaps even be) very credible.

In all of this, I hear the human desire for simple and clear directives that will help us moving through the fog… Perhaps a simple 5-point plan?

Maybe you have heard the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes before: “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.”

The danger of premature simplification of complexity is that we do not see reality as it is. We merely view it from an angle that suits us the best. You might, therefore, be fooling yourself. The fact is that you don’t know what you don’t know. And perhaps some people choose not to know… and therefore make dangerous, one-sided, biased decisions that can cost them a lot, even their lives and/or that of others. Also their businesses and their credibility.

Passivity is also not the answer. Neither is withdrawal. We should have a better, and perhaps a humble approach. I got the picture below from an article written by John Knox.

This means that the best way to deal with complexity is to go through it. Grapple with it while trying to gain insight and making sense, and then humbly navigate yourself through the challenges, making the best short-term decisions you can. And stay adaptable and flexible. In all of this, do not to lose connection with your most important navigating instruments: your identity, values, purpose and mission in life.

I do not intend to give an answer to our complex situation. But I do want to challenge you: embrace the reality of complexity, also in your own personal realities right now. Make peace with what you cannot fully understand, predict or control. Then, and only then, decide and do what seems the best.

In these times, I remind myself: there is One, bigger than the current storm, who is lovingly always with me. That, to me, is the ultimate of simplicity in and beyond our complexities.

For those who have an appetite for a bit more reading about complexity and business, read the excellent article at