Leading and Reversible Simplification

As I’ve previously written more obtusely, all simplification must be context specific.

This means you cannot arbitrarily make something more simple – you can only make it more simple in a particular context. As such you need to be able to ask “simple for what purpose?” Or at least “simple for who?” in order to start the process of simplification.

Also, if you plan to simplify something multiple times for different contexts, and there isn’t a clear root structure with an appropriate and natural level of complexity, your multiple “simplified” views will be more complex than the natural level of complexity when they are combined.

Furthermore, I have argued that if you want to create things of enduring value you should first strive for difficulty in comprehension – that is, for complexity – in the first instance. By doing this you are giving yourself the best chance at making something of enduring value. Once you have something of enduring value you can “make it simple” by either creating the context for which it can be understood, or by creating a view of it for a particular context.

In a way, this is no different to the idea that innovative products must create their own demand. When we recount that “if I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have wanted a faster horse” Henry Ford parable we are but sighting an example of somebody working at both natural levels of complexity and the need for context specific simplification.

Cars are complex, though arguably less complex than a horse, and while the context of utility can be made as simple as faster or slower, that doesn’t simplify the complexity of either a car or a horse.

So simplification without context creates complexity. However, I’ve always maintained their are two types of simplification that are desirable when it comes to the management of our organisations. It is true that these are just examples of “context specific” simplification but I believe they deserve to be named in the context of organisational coordination and management.

Leading Simplification 

Leading simplification is simplification that occurs prior to complexity arising. Leading simplification is grounding and truely leading in the sense of “leadership”.

Leading simplification is when you can state outcomes or a vision that will remain true (or can be incrementally managed) during the process of discovering, creating, or otherwise managing complexity.

It’s an unfortunate side-effect of managerialism that the request to simplify something usually comes at the end of the process of discovering, creating, and managing complexity – rather than at the beginning. Managerialism, when it benefits managers rather than organisations, has a tendency to provide no leading simplicity but then expect the outcome to be simple / simplified.

Leading simplification is therefore a call for simplification of vision, objectives, and perhaps constraints – rather than creating an environment with a lack of leadership or a *post hoc* calling for simplification.

Reversible Simplification 

We mustn’t create intractable scenarios for ourselves. So what do we do when in the absence of leading simplification we have created undesirable complexity of the type that truely must be simplified?

The answer is “reversible simplification”. In this case we don’t create a disconnected and alternative view of the complexity and claim it a simplification. We must always ensure we can reverse the simplification and return to the complexity.

If somebody looks at the simplified view and prioritises or relates one or more components against others, this must have clear or at least clarifiable implications on the complex view of the same thing.

Where the implications create genuine simplifications these can the be circled back to all other views to alter, remove, or add as implied by the new reversible context. This happens naturally where there is a conscious desire to reduce complexity.

Disrupting Simplification

If you are familiar with the logic of disruptive approaches such as design thinking, you may think that there is a category of simplification missing from the above.

There is a type of simplification that ignores legacy. Many facilitated workshops start with the idea that they are “leaving preconceptions at the door”. Instead these take a different perspective on the problem – often based on a “customer driven” analysis.

I happen to like these approaches and believe they are an important part of the innovation process. I’ll admit I’m a little offended by the implication that some of these processes and styles of thinking are new – but that’s another discussion.

However, I don’t believe these are different from “leading” or “reversible” simplification. In fact, they are a useful combination of both and should be considered as such.

If you are “leaving preconceptions at the door” you are effectively taking away any basis for judging improvements or the amount of innovation produced by a process. If you’ve explicitly left legacy at the door, when you declare your workshop was success at the end of the session how do you know that was the case? You have effectively thrown out and disallowed anything that would allow you to make that comparison.

In this sense your simplication isn’t reversible. That is it isn’t reservable until you comprehensively test-and-learn in a comprehensive way that both produces product / outcomes and understands impacts. Which is of course exactly what happens when we are conscientious.

Intensionally incomprehensible 

It is the habit of those under pressure to equate their personal understanding of something with its complexity or utility. Even something that might be understood with some additional effort or persistence of engagement is dismissed as not useful because it is not immediately understood.  If I were to evaluate the utility of an artefact such as a document that must be understood to be useful I would contrast between those artefacts that are easy to understand in the first reading with those that are only understood after multiple readings. I would make a further distinction of those items that after being understood are recognised by those who now understand them to have value.  

My preferred artefact of all of those covered by the above convolution is those artefacts that require multiple readings prior to complete understanding being attained, and then continue to have a respectful recognition of value from those who now understand them. I proposed that everybody who considers these various types of artefacts would have the same preference.

There is a temptation to prefer the artefacts that are fully understood on their first reading and that are also then on immediately first consuming them recognised as having enduring value. However, I believe this category of artefacts only reveal truth that those consuming are ready to consume. For those not ready they fall into my first preferred category and require subsequent readings prior to being fully understood and appriciated.  

This tempting exception is in fact merely an example of a general case. Creating an artefact that cannot be fully comprehended on the first reading should be the intention in all cases. Simplicity is context specific. Given the number of possible contexts is infinite it is impossible to make something simple for all contexts simultaneously. 

In all cases an artefact that cannot be comprehended on its first consumption is either incomprehensible, requires further knowledge to be acquired by those consuming it before it is appreciated, or requires a change in the underlying values or beliefs of those consuming it before it can be accepted as having value. 

The initial intention of incomprehensibility is of course no guarantee of the second criteria – which is to produce artefacts considered to have enduring value by those who understand them. However, for those who understand it to consider it to have enduring value it must have some relationship to the future knowledge, beliefs, and values of those who consume it. 

Not all artefacts created with the intention of being incomprehensible will have enduring value to those who understand them. But I believe those created with the intention of being only comprehensible on multiple consumptions will have a better chance of having enduring value than those created with the intention of non-contextualised simplicity. As non-contextualised simplistically doesn’t exist, aiming for it will have unintended consequences. 

There is no path that begins with being initially comprehensible on first consumption that can create enduring value without itself including all possible differences in knowledge, beliefs, and values that might be reflected between subsequent consumptions or in the path to understanding or appreciating the artefact’s enduring value.

Matthew’s law might therefore be that non-specific simplification always reduces enduring value.  

The solution is reversible simplification or leading simplification. These represent a disciplined simplification that retains traceability to the original complexity, or a tentative pre simplification more closely resembling an hypothesis. 

And yet:

“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” – H. L. Mencken

You can’t become a magician!? What will our friends think!?

I often wonder what would happen if I suddenly realised exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life but the thing I realised I wanted to do was something like become a magician or a ventriloquist. Would I or anybody I know accept this, and could I actually make the change, or would I ultimately forgo the life I’d finally realised I wanted?
When I say I often wonder this, I don’t mean it’s particularly all consuming. I just wonder about it because I think it’s interesting for a number of reasons:

a. It hasn’t happened – though it must have a non-zero probability, right?

b. In the specific examples I’m used above – magician or ventriloquist – I actually don’t think I would disrupt my whole life to be one of those and I don’t think people around me would “understand” if I did.  

c. Given a. and b. I wonder if this is ever likely to happen

It’s c. that’s really interesting to me. The idea that there is some hidden purpose to your life that you must discover has been discussed all over the place as both a truth and as a fallacy. I personally believe more in the idea of “making yourself” rather than “finding yourself”. I also suspect that “making yourself” has gone from being the edgy contrarian opinion to being the dominate popular believe, even as it continues to be presented as the contrarian view.

So I don’t believe your special purpose is completely isolated from the situation you are currently in now. Nor do I think your special purpose is at odds with the values you currently have now at this moment. Again, this is because I believe you “make yourself” rather than “find yourself” and therefore your special purpose doesn’t even exist until you make it.

However, there’s a contradiction here. If your special purpose doesn’t exist until you make it, and yet it’s not at odds with your currently situation and the values you have right now, then it cannot fully “not exist” right at this moment.

The situation you are currently in, and the values you currently hold, should already be the seed of what you eventually make. In many ways there is nothing new or revolutionary about stating this. In fact, those who knew me in my 20s would probably recognise this sort of articulation of beliefs. Furthermore, those who knew philosophy when it was in its 20s could probably provide a more nuanced and incomprehensible rendering. However, I personally haven’t really thought like this for a long time.  

I didn’t need to think through these sort of things over the last few years because I’ve felt that I was fully formed. But I’ve been questioning that recently. I’ve never been one to resist change, and I consider myself as much of a “lifetime learner” as anybody else. But I’m also doing what many people do at my age (and perhaps at this time of year) – I’m consciously transitioning to whatever’s next.

And I’m determined to enjoy the process.

Work isn’t frustrating, Disappointment is

I used to get angry and frustrated at work. This was objectively because work is actually pretty frustrating and many things that happen at work are a legitimate cause to get angry. But I stopped getting angry and frustrated anyway.  
I had to make up a reason to stop because without a good reason it was easy and natural to fall back into the old habit. The reason I came up with was simply that being angry and frustrated at people either hurts them or helps them – depending on whether they have power over you.

If you are angry and frustrated at somebody who has power over you, or wants power over you, then you are giving them a lever with which to manipulate you and your fortunes. If you are angry and frustrated at somebody who you have power over, or somebody who believes you have power over them, you frighten them or at least make them feel uncomfortable.  

So your anger and frustration ultimately helps people who might want to hurt you, and hurts people who might be willing to help you. This is my reason I made up for no longer getting angry or frustrated. It’s useful and may well also be true.

It’s important to realise though that forcing yourself to stop being angry and frustrated isn’t a magical cure to all things work related. I used to also get angry and frustrated because I’m ambitious (in my own way) and determined to make a positive impact on the world.  

I was rarely angry or frustrated at a particular person or any aspect of their personality. Instead, I was typically angry and frustrated at how a person’s actions, behaviours, inaction, or perhaps just poor communication interfered with my plans or the progress I thought I had made.  

So there still exists this distinction between being angry and frustrated for legitimate and even noble reasons, and the act of being angry or frustrated at or towards particular people. This step of taking your anger and frustration and aiming it towards somebody – even yourself – must be seriously considered and most often avoided.  

The trap we sometimes fall into is that we want to hold onto that anger and frustration because we know it’s part of our passion. We want to hold onto it because we know it’s righteous when it comes from good intentions and noble causes. But we get stuck in this transition between not getting angry and frustrated at people, versus not getting angry and frustrated at all.  

During this transition we tend to get frustrated at ourselves. If we don’t shift through this phase with the right changes in mindset we’ll move away from our passions and towards regret and self-loathing, rather than away from the frustration and anger we were feeling.

We need another name for the noble frustration and anger that we don’t want to let go of. Although it feels the same we need to consciously make a distinction between worthless frustration and anger and noble frustration and anger, just like we need to make a distinction between being frustrated and angry versus getting frustrated and angry at a particular person.  

Our goal is to move away from frustration and anger while moving towards our passion and goals, rather than losing both at the same time or reverting back to being frustrated and angry at others. 

Let’s call the righteous frustration and anger “fight”. This brings to mind a passionate defence – a defence of what you believe is right. But it also brings to mind the idea of the “fight or flight” response typically associated with stressful situations.  

It is righteous and noble to “fight” for what you believe so that particular sort of anger and frustration now has a name with less negative connotations. By feeling and labelling the feeling as “fight” you are at least acknowledge that your gut is telling you in this instance you want to stand your ground. You haven’t chosen “flight” you’ve chosen “fight”. You want to fight for what you believe in, you think this is important, and you think things could be better in this moment.  

But in that moment you have to ask yourself two questions. Firstly, do I really want to “fight” or is it just this situation in this moment that makes it feel important to my overall goals and values? Secondly, do I honestly think I’ll help my own cause the most through an emotional response right at this moment?  

These questions force as to decide, either now or by giving ourselves time to decide later, if this is important and if we truely believe what we are going to do will help. Often taking action feels better in the moment – but by forcing ourselves to remember the decision we make we can look back on it and judge if we made a good decision.  

When we act purely to make ourselves feel better in the moment we are not really “fighting” for our cause – we are getting a quick fix, usually at the expense of our own objectives. In fact, acting against our own objectives is really a “flight” response as we run from the actions (or inactions) that will help us.  

We can’t always stop ourselves doing this. But we can take the moment we decide clearly so that when we reflect back on that moment we have no excuse but to see it as a decision we made rather than something we were forced to do based on the situation.  

So, if you are angry and frustrated it’s either justified or it’s not. If it’s justified what you are really feeling is disappointment and you are having a “fight” response as a way of staying on your course. But if you try to push that anger and frustration to somebody else it’s either going to make them think you are disappointed in them, or it’s going to make them disappointed at you. This is rarely what you want to achieve and will rarely help you make the changes in yourself and the world that will reduce your disappointment in the future.

Empath, Empathic, or Pathetic

People tend to judge how much they are supporting others higher than the support they receive from others. I try not to but I might be failing.  

People who know me often tell me I think differently to other people. Usually, this is framed as somehow being “innovative” or “creative”. The truth is I do believe I think differently to other people. I even have an old note that I wrote to myself about 15 years ago entitled “Way’s In Which I’m Different”. 

I don’t really value “innovation” and “creativity” the way other people seem to think I do. I guess this is another way I’m different. But I suspect people are just trying to be kind. So I enjoy their kind words.

One of the ways I actually believe I’m different is that I have a hard time claiming to know how somebody else feels. I genuinely don’t like to pre-suppose I know how somebody feels. This means if I try to be supportive or helpful I typically don’t assume that I’ve succeeded unless they tell me. 

Interestingly, sometimes I’m told I’m not “empathetic”. This is rarely said in a nasty way – my wife says it the most often, so I know it’s not something that makes me unbearable, or unloveable.  

But I believe this idea that I might lack “empathy” is related to my unwillingness to presume to know what somebody is feeling.  

It’s possible that when I communicate I’m so committed to not presuming that I know what goes on inside another person’s mind, or to presume I know how they feel, that I’m coming across as not empathetic. When I try to take the next step it often feels fake – not because I’m faking emotions, but because I know I can’t feel what they feel. But I do care, and I do try to help.  

Like an introvert who finds communication with others draining, genuinely caring for others takes energy, and time, and must never be faked.  

There is a trend I’ve noticed where people refer to themselves as “empaths”. I believe they think this means they have a special intuition about how others are feeling and take these emotions on themselves. I can’t relate to that concept. One interpretation of me not being able to understand a so-called “empath” might be that I myself lack empathy. But I have other theories. 

I believe those that call themselves “empaths” are doing one of two things. Either, they are so self-centred that they cannot think about the feelings of others without making it all about themselves. Alternatively, they are so lacking and out-of-touch with their own genuine feelings that they have to reach out and adopt the feelings of others in order to feel emotionally connected to the world.  

It feels too personal to write about this, and again I feel it’s presumptuous to claim any knowledge of how others feel – even how empaths feel. But because I am thinking about it now does that make me finally more empathetic, or does it mean I’m an empath? Or just pathetic.