The Cost of Complexity

Accountability Organizational leadership


Key Point: If we don’t understand the essence of something very quickly and easily, we might want to fiercely fight for alternatives or flat out reject it. Why?

Complexity almost always involves waste. I’m not talking about advanced science that takes years of academic understanding. I’m talking about most things in work and life, where we can put “elegantly simple” as a priority when filtering out proposals.

As an example, I’ve been curiously watching the “Holacracy Management Experiment.” Holacracy is the so-called avant-garde management system that serves as an alternative to the traditional office hierarchy. When Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ inventive CEO, dives into something, I become very interested. However, Holacracy is struggling to get real traction as a widely adopted, scalable management system. After working at it for four years, Medium is giving up on it. Medium lists a series of “challenges” it faced while using Holacracy, all of which boil down to a familiar problem: It was too complicated. 

According to a recent Bloomberg article on the subject, “’The biggest pain point was, with a growing company, investment and teaching new people when they show up how to use Holacracy,’ said Jason Stirman, who was Medium’s enthusiastic Holacracy Officer-in addition to his estimated 40 other roles-until he left to start his own app six months ago. 

So what happened? ‘For us, Holacracy was getting in the way of the work,’ wrote Andy Doyle, who works in operations at Medium, in a recent blog post. Forgoing hierarchy is supposed to set companies free from the tyranny of bureaucracy. Holacracy just created a new kind of organizational red tape. ‘Teaching a mindset was a big investment,’ said Stirman. Hiring and orienting new employees, an already expensive process, was made even more difficult because of Holacracy. ‘You could essentially take a week off [from] work to get everyone trained professionally, which would be incredibly expensive.’ And he’s not even sure that would get everyone up to speed on the intricacies of Holacracy. Many companies can’t afford to spend the time and money working on the way they work, rather than on the work itself. Stirman, for example, doesn’t plan on running his new venture as a Holacracy. ‘With my new company, nothing is more important than getting this app in the app store,’ he said. ‘I’m not employing any system that involves any kind of learning.”’

Think about that last quote: “Not employing any system that involves any kind of learning.” When I reflect about my own personal behavior, I have a huge gag reflex when I open up an app or any consumer device that requires a long visit with instructions. I’ve become used to the delight of opening things up that “work out of the box.” Not surprisingly, Apple is genius at this, from packaging to playing. Usually they deliver a simple elegant design. Now think about lots of things we do in organizations. The reason I believe operating people get so frustrated with support units (e.g. HR, finance, marketing, compliance, etc.) is because they often make things so darn complicated for people working with customers.

My latest pet peeve is friggin’ compensation systems. In many organizations, we have made it so you have to be a member of Mensa to navigate incentive comp. (Our comp people deserve Purple Hearts for trying to uphold the integrity of our system). And why? Perhaps one reason is that old school business education has it firmly planted in peoples’ minds that employees will only do something if pay is directly attached. That may hold true if you’re getting paid by the basket for picking peas, but obviously thats not the case in most work places. For some reason, we often like to take pay and have it apply to numerous variables “brilliant” managers parse up as “vital” and then, heaven forbid, if the compensation system doesn’t weed out individual performance. Managers often try and use the compensation system to cover up lousy leadership. Add… No, multiply… All this together and you get major COMPLEXITY. There’s my little compensation complexity rant. And trust me, I’m going to do something about this in our company. 

Character Moves:

  1. Ask yourself how anything of importance you’re doing at work and life is “elegantly simple.” Then consider what you can do to reduce the complexity and take out the unnecessary clutter. Just because you or your organization has been doing something for a long time, doesn’t make it right. Take the waste out! Attack the process.   
  2. If someone proposes something and you don’t “get the essence of it” right away, be constructively skeptical. Ask yourself how it would do against the following: “Not employing any system that involves any kind of learning.” And when someone says you need a massive “roll out,” so called assigned “Change Managers,” huge amount of training, push back hard. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot any such proposal. 

Simply in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) is a pretty infallible acronym for most things. People may enjoy the puzzle involved with complexity. Maybe they believe it makes them seem smarter, more capable, or better educated. But ask a person who just successfully ordered dinner by Tweeting a pizza emoji if they’d rather solve a calculus equation to earn their delivery. Probably not.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis