How Do We Acknowledge the Power of Complexity In Our Search for Simplification

In nearly every pursuit, people are quick to narrow things down to a single interpretation or narrative. That urge is so ingrained in us that we sometimes forget to challenge it. Simple is always better, right? We’ve been told this in one way or another since childhood. The blue, round peg goes in the blue, round hole. The red, square piece goes in the red, square hole. It’s the way our brain processes visual information — as Gestalt Psychology posits, in Proximity, Similarity, Continuity, Simplicity, Symmetry, and Closure. 

It’s why when you look out into your backyard, you see a tree instead of 33 individual branches at various widths and lengths (two of which are about to crack and fall), hundreds of leaves in various hues, a squirrel, three birds, a wasp’s nest, and a system of roots. It’s why in films, you see continuous moving images, not dozens of individual still shots. The brain takes multifaceted, complex things and simplifies them, pulling them together for the sake of continuity. 

Categorization is another fundamental part of how we think. It’s our brain’s way of organizing and simplifying our environment so we can interact with it more efficiently. Some scientists believe that category-selective neurons in the prefrontal cortex kick in once knowledge has been shifted from short-term to long-term memory — it’s like a filing system! That’s part of the reason why categories are not necessarily a correct reflection of reality. Our simplified perception vs. the overwhelming complexity of reality affects everything from what we recognize or notice, to our decision-making, biases, and memory.

These processes aren’t inherently good or bad. After all, they’re what allows us to interact with our strange and unpredictable world. For instance, some researchers believe that the principles of Gestalt psychology are what allows us to do vastly complex visual tasks like read a book. However, in addition to shaping how we literally see the world, simplification infiltrates our beliefs, opinions, processes, and experiences. 

You see this urge play out when the attention of others needs to be captured quickly. Things are boiled down to catchy taglines or assertions of “right” and “wrong.” We have to delve deeper, though. In 2021, as the world is confronted with even more turmoil and unrest, people are realizing that there is a different kind of beauty in complexity, and in some ways, a more honest truth.

How to Lead a Team with Complexity

So, how does this apply to you and your team? Well, leading a business or team comes with all sorts of complicated choices. It can be tempting to offer a simple, cut-and-dry answer. Some people may even appreciate it in the moment, but when reality inevitably gets more complex, that too-simple resolution might come back to bite you.

Here are some strategies to embrace when working to simplify the complexity without over-simplifying:

  1. Evaluate and question yourself first: Before jumping into action, poke at all your assumptions. If something seems obvious to you, call it into question. Always challenge yourself to view things through multiple perspectives.
  2. Acknowledge the complexity: It’s valuable to tell your team that you recognize how complex the situation might be. Doing so isn’t an admission of confusion or a sign of indecisiveness; it’s a matter of respect to the people around you that you know just how much you don’t know. You can follow with a question for them, too — how do they see it? What do they know and not know?
  3. Make a decision and follow through: At some point, a decision must be made. After you’ve put in the work to consider your own perceptions and biases, look at it from different angles, and get input for others, it’s time to make a call. Acknowledgement of complexity doesn’t change that.
  4. Allow for exceptions and be willing to change your mind: Part of trusting in complexity requires you to know that there is no one-size-fits-all, and there may come a time when the decision you made doesn’t work. For example, you may lead your team as a democracy, weighing out decisions together and getting everyone’s vote. More than one thing can be true at once though — you can lead through democracy but still occasionally enact a dictatorship if an emergency occurs.
  5. Seek to break a complex issue into its smallest parts, then start solving: this creates power in the decision-making process and allows you to invite others into the complexity in a way that makes sense.
  6. Remember that “simple” and “clear” are two different things: Just like “complication” and “complexity” differ, so too do “simple” and “clear.” Your decision-making process can be complex and clear. Think of a really good short story. In just a few words, and with great clarity, writers have told some of the most iconic and complex tales about the human condition.

As a leader or as part of a team, learning to lean into complexity takes time and practice. It’s less of a flipped switch and more of a slow acclimatization. But it’s necessary, because when we over-simplify, we limit our understanding of ourselves, our peers, and the world around us.