Making complex things simple


This past week I got frustrated with things that were unnecessarily complex. Time to simplify! But making things simpler can itself prove complex. How do you make complicated things simple?

Today I’m sharing five of my strategies.

Making things complicated is never hard, oddly enough. Consider entropy. (Or if you’re allergic to physics, just skip this and go straight to Strategy #1: “Skip it”.)

Imagine a box filled with red and blue marbles. Down the middle is a partition, which keeps all the blue marbles on one side and all the red ones on the other. Now let’s say you remove the partition and shake the box. It won’t take long before the red and blue marbles mix. Although there’s theoretically a tiny chance that the blue and red marbles will sort themselves within the box, we know that won’t happen. There’s a law of physics at play here: the second law of thermodynamics states that self-organization in a system (i.e. less chaos) is only possible if energy is added.

Entropy and complicated things have a lot in common, but in particular this: complex problems and solutions won’t get simpler on their own. Complexity tends to increase rather than decrease, unless you put in the energy.

Here are five things you can do to make things simpler.

Strategy 1: Skip it

Complex matters will have multiple steps, all of which seem important. Cutting out steps makes sense as a strategy, but it’s harder than it looks. You’ve got to understand which steps are truly needed, so you can scrap the rest.

Is it really necessary, for instance, to have copy approved by another department before you can use it? Or what about that sticker on your packaging, which means an extra step in the process: maybe we can just skip it?

Strategy 2: Scrap whole sections

Problems often require solutions that aren’t linear, step-by-step processes. Sometimes whole sections can be carried out simultaneously. That’s often an opportunity to make things simpler.

Say you want to make an app and a website for a new project. Making both will add complexity. Eliminate one or the other, and your job just got much easier.

I just published a hardcover version of my Dutch book GRIP – in addition to the paperback and ebook. Skipping the hardcover during the initial launch removed a lot of the complexity of that project. It also means I can now apply everything I’ve learned along the way to this new edition.

Strategy 3: Shave time off the top

At first glance, your project may look like this:

But visualize how much time each item costs, and you get a different picture:

Of course duration doesn’t always equal complexity, but in many cases it does have something to do with it. If you manage to eliminate block 3 or 4, or reduce their complexity, you can win some time.

Add a basement to your plans for that house you’re building, and odds are that step will bring more time and complexity with it than just adding an extra room. So it makes sense to look at the time individual steps will take.

Strategy 4: Cut out uncertainty

This is a variation on strategies 1 and 3. You never know what you’ll run into with a new project, but you can often indicate ahead of time which components concern you most. Want to reduce complexity? Scrap the ones you’re uncertain about.

I know very little about cars, and buying a car can be a complicated affair. To make things easier on ourselves, we bought a make and model of car we’re already familiar with, so it would be easier to spot problems. Thus eliminating a big chunk of the uncertainty.

Strategy 5: Frontload uncertainty

I’m a fan of frontloading. It sounds like a computer scheduling term, like FIFO (first in, first out), or priority queueing, but it’s not. Frontloading is an effective way of tackling complex projects faster.

The short explanation? Do the big, complex stuff first.

Take the components you’re unsure about and make them your step 1. That gives you the chance to explore and figure out whether they’re truly as complicated as you anticipate. If not, great! Now you’re ahead of the game, and the rest of the project drops in complexity. If the frontloaded sections are indeed complicated (or even more complex than expected), then you can decide from the get-go how to proceed.

Say you’re building a digital product with a key component that relies heavily on the latest technology. Then it’s smart to start with that. If you postpone taking on the complicated part and begin with all the things that are known, what happens when your revolutionary idea doesn’t work? Then you’ve put in a lot of work for nothing.

Make the hard stuff step 1, and you know where you stand.

Making complex things simpler is not easy, but it’s so worth it. What’s your favorite strategy? I’d love to hear what works for you.

Thanks for reading and have a good week!


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