In today’s post, I will be looking at complexity from the standpoint of organizational communication and KISS. For the purpose of this post, I am defining complexity as a measure of computational effort needed to describe your intent. This idea of complexity is loosely based on Kolmogorov’s definition of “Complexity” from an algorithm standpoint.
To give a very simple example, let’s say that I would like to convey two messages, M1 and M2:
M1 = 010101
M2 = 100111
From the complexity standpoint, M2 requires more effort to explain because there is no discerning pattern in the string of numbers. M1, on the other hand, is easier to describe. I can just say, “Repeat 01 three times.” For M2, I have no choice but say the entire string of numbers. In this regard, I could say that M2 is more complex than M1.
Let’s look at another example, M3:
M3 = 1415926535
Here, it may look like there is no discerning pattern to the string of numbers. However, this can be easily described as “first 10 decimal values of pi without 3. Thus, this message also has low complexity. We can easily see a direct linear relationship or know the content just by observation/empirical evidence.
The examples so far have been examples of low complexity messages. These are easy to generate, diffuse and convey. From the complexity standpoint, these are Simple messages. If I were to create a message that explained Einstein’s relativity, it may not be easily understood if the receiver of the message does not have a good grasp of Physics and advanced math. This is an example of medium complexity or a complicated topic. The relationship is evident with all of the information available.
Now let’s say that I would like to create a message about a complex topic – solve poverty or solve global warming. There is no evident relationship here that can be manipulated with an equation to solve the problem. These are examples of wicked problems – there are no solutions to these problems. There are options but none of the options will fully solve the many intricate problems that are entangled with each other. Such a topic is unlikely to be explained in a message.
The common thread in communication or solving problems is the emphasis on KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). However, in an effort to keeping things simple, we often engage in mismatched complexity. Complex ideas should not be exclusively conveyed as simple statements. The ideal state is that we use the optimal message – adjust complexity of the message to match the complexity of the content. This is detailed in the schematic below. The optimal message is the 45 degree line between the two axes. A highly complex topic should not be expressed using a low complex message such as a slogan or policy statement. In a similar fashion, a low complexity topic does not need a high complexity message method such as an hour-long meeting to discuss something fundamental.
The highly complex topic can use both low and medium message methods to ensure that the complex idea is conveyed properly. The diffusion of the highly complex topic can build upon both low and medium message methods. The diffusion of a highly complex topic also requires redundancy, which means that the message must be conveyed as many times as needed and use of metaphors and analogies. One definition of “communication” from the great Gregory Bateson is – Communication is what the receiver understands, not what the sender says.
A good example to explain this is Toyota Production System. The concept of a production system for the entire plant is a complex concept. Toyota Production System was once called “the Ohno method” since it was not implemented company-wide and there was doubt as to the success of the system being a long-term plan. Ohno’s message was not written down anywhere and the employees did not learn that from a manual or a video. Ohno conveyed his ideas by being at the gemba (actual work place), implementing ideas and learning from them. He also developed employees by constantly challenging them to find a better way with less. Ohno used to draw a chalk circle on the floor for supervisors/engineers to make them see what he saw. He developed the Toyota Production System and with continuous mentoring, nurtured it together with the employees. Today there are over 1000 books at Amazon regarding “Lean Manufacturing”. When top management is looking at implementing lean, the message should match the complexity of the content. Low complex message methods like slogans or placards will not work. Medium complex message methods like newsletters, books etc will not work. This will require constant on-the-floor interactive mentoring. At the same time, slogans and newsletters can aid in the diffusion process.
I have always felt that KISS and Poka-Yoke have a similar story to tell from a respect-for-people standpoint. Poka-Yoke (Error proofing) was initially termed as Baka-Yoke to indicate “fool proofing”. Shigeo Shingo changed it to Poke-Yoke to indicate error proofing after an employee asked him “have I been such a fool?” In a similar fashion, KISS was initially put forth as “Keep It Simple Stupid” (without the comma). Nowadays, this has been changed to “Keep It Short and Simple” and “Keep It Simple Straightforward”.
It is good to keep things simple and to view at a problem from a 10,000 feet level. However, we should not stop there. We need to understand the context and complexity of the problem and then create this information in such a manner that it can be diffused across the organization. This can be repeated as many times as needed. Do not insist on simplicity without understanding the complexity of the problem. Asking to keep things simple is an attempt to keep round pegs in familiar square holes. When there is a mismatch of complexity it leads to incorrect solutions and setbacks. As Einstein may have said, “everything should be as simple as it can, but not simpler”.
We can also view the complexity/message diagram in the light of the Feynman (Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman) technique of studying hard subjects. Feynman came up with a method where he would start studying and making notes pretending to prepare a lecture for a class. He would use simple terms and analogies to explain the subject. When he got stuck he would go back and try to understand it even better. He would then proceed with making notes. He would repeat the steps many times until he got the concept thoroughly. Moving from High to Medium to Low in the diagram, and going back-and-forth helps to connect the dots and gain a better understanding.
I will finish with another quote, attributed to Lotfi Zadeh (father of Fuzzy Logic):
“As complexity rises, precise statements lose meaning and meaningful statements lose precision.”
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Flat Earth Lean: