Making the Complicated Simple is Genius, Making the Complex Simple is Wrong

By Brett Rutledge
The Articulate CEO

Communication is the primary tool of leadership but the greatest problem with leadership communication is that so much is ineffective! Improving communication effectiveness is not about skill or technique it is about a completely different way of thinking.

There seems to exist some confusion in the modern world over what constitutes complicated and complex. Many of us think these terms are interchangeable but they are not. They are distinctly different and while the simplification of one can be brilliant the simplification of the other is disastrous.

The difference between the two lies in the difference between knowing something and being able to predict something. Complicated things are knowable – difficult perhaps but knowable. Complex things are not knowable no matter how long you spend studying them but they may be predictable.

For example, a car is a very complicated thing but given enough time and instruction I could learn the purpose and function of every single component. In that sense a car is knowable. It would take me years to do it but eventually I would be able to take the car apart and reassemble it and drive it exactly as I had before. My father (a mechanic) would argue otherwise but this is perfectly possible in theory.

Traffic on the other hand is a complex thing. Every day I travel the traffic is different. Even if it is the same street that I travel on the traffic is different. There is actually no way to be able to know and understand what is going on around me. Every driver is different – even the same driver can behave differently on a different day and who knows how they might interact with each other.

What I can do, of course, is make educated guesses and predictions about the traffic based on my experience but I can never know for sure.

This is where things get interesting. If I take something complicated and make it simple I am in fact making it better. It is a very difficult thing to do but enormously powerful.

You see it in medicine when a regimen of medicines is reduced to a single pill. You see it in transport when a map is replaced by satellite navigation that tells you how to reach your destination. You see it in cooking when a food processor eliminates the need for knife skills.

In terms of communication we see it whenever a complicated idea is expressed in simple, concrete language such as Martin Luther King’s seminal speech on reconciliation that we all know as “I have a dream”. Companies have often harnessed this to make their brand memorable such as Nike with “Just Do It” and Disney with “The Happiest Place on Earth”.

If, however, I take something complex and try to simplify it then I make it wrong and that is disastrous. Remember the complex cannot be known, it can only be predicted and those who attempt to make the complex simple are, in fact, implying the former.

They are saying that not only can it be known but also that it can be controlled and that leads to very poor decisions. It’s like saying that traffic is always light on the freeway before 7am – a good prediction perhaps but not actually true.

It is precisely these kinds of crass generalisations that lead individuals to failure, companies to ruin and countries to war.

Thankfully, they are relatively easy to recognise. Unfortunately, they are also alluring and desirable so they suck a lot of people in. Positive thinking, left-brain versus right-brain, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, body language and just about anything that involves a “secret” are examples of attempts in the communication world to make the complex simple. Every single one of them is wrong. Sadly, all of them are also widely believed.

We must resist these urges to dumb things down and offer ‘silver bullet’ solutions to our most complex problems just as we must do everything in our power to take the complicatedness out of our day-to-day lives. The key is to recognise which is which and respond accordingly.

Brett Rutledge is a master of communication, specialising in verbal communication, who has parlayed his knowledge into a career as an in-demand business speaker, facilitator and coach. Brett has over the past 10 years forged a solid track record both here in Australia and overseas. His clients include such respected names as AMP, Fuji Xerox, Canon, BHP Billiton, IBM, Samsung, Westpac, Ford, ANZ, General Motors, Nestle and Microsoft, to name a few.

Visit The Articulate CEO for Brett's blog and podcasts or for more information.

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