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 during 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 is 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 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 unfortunately 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 and *post hoc* calling for 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 conscientious desire to reduce complexity.
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 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.