Five complex steps to simplicity

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

The knowledge work, the technical decisions and issues, the work – life balance, the impossible calendar schedule, the must have anticipation of business needs… Easily the viral day-to-day urge makes live looks chaotic. We feel it can’t be controlled. You can’t divide and conquer because you don’t know where is safe enough to cut off on pieces.

How to get back to earth during a chaotic-like situation, a mission-impossible, a failing project, an interpersonal conflict or a technical issue? How to escape this regressive spiral?

Find below my 5 complex steps to simplicity.


Step 1. Prepare to doubt.

The magic starts when you look behind the problem and ask:

Is my perception correct?

One easily confuses

chaos with complexity, 

complexity with complication, 

and complication with simplicity,

or even chaos with complication, or, God forbid, with simplicity!

The Cinefin framework provokes revision of prejustices.


Step 2. Doubt in yourself.

And even more: Instead of a regular doubt, chose the doubt about your doubt: a positive use case of doubt.

What if I’ve got really wrong and the level of control I have is higher than I thought… A bit of a research would help to understand better the current state and hopefully some of its root causes. But we are still not there!

One of the side effects of trying to impose this mindset comes before the target result:

Rational thinking limits the panic.

Additionally when acting in a team, the first thing to do is to look like not in panic. This gives a greater chance to the team to help each other and escape the panic: one by one, or all together.


Step 3. Eliminate the simple.

The sun enlightens some dependencies and the way forward slowly appears out of the clouds.

Clean out in small steps, one by one.

Surprisingly it is a common scenario that chaos is eliminated by answering questions one after another.

Simple questions can be solved by everybody who’s not in panic mode. As a start, write them down: ambiguities, questions, assumptions, dependencies and eliminate. Short wins.


Step 4. Send a distress signal (the double doubt).

The double doubt preserves us not to urge to classify a problem as complex. Complicated problems are practically simple problems for the highly skilled people (which are not in panic mode).

I am still in doubt, so I think that what is complex for you, could be simple for another. Nothing personal. Before to accept that it is a complex issue, we can always look for the advice of another expert or two, or even of non-experts. It can work any time.


Step 5. Believe in your creativity.

The believe is an expensive capability. Its cost is paid in the previous four steps. This step is about a call for revolution that must reset the huge amount of non-linear dependencies.

Revolution expects creativity, the problem on how to switch between your left-brain and your right-brain dominant. I will let you deal with it alone (in five complex steps).


What are the risks?

  1. The Ego. It happens that you just can’t accept or confess that you might be wrong. This blocks your problem solving process.
  2. The Viability of the problem. Is the problem still valid? Is the projection of needed investment worth the result? Often this pitfall is accompanied by the phrase: “We can’t stop now, we invested so much!” Acknowledge the fear of losing the investment and the risk to lose even more.

Let’s be agile and regularly check those risks out.


Why those steps are complex?

  • Reaching results in Steps 1 and 2 is an individual process.
  • The recipe for success of steps 3 to 5 can be a combination of different techniques. We all know how to combine, right? After all, this is exactly how we create complex problems.

There is a long list of problem solving techniques and management approaches. You can find some of them in my preferred list below:

  • The general technique: root cause analysis. It combines well with 5Why-s.
  • In engineering we do reverse engineering: deduct the structure / architecture of the system by observing its components so to get control over it.
  • In business we often use the term business agility: stay open-minded so to act fast and small in front of uncertainty. And we reach some level of control.
  • Elimination of simple and complicated problems can be done with methods like scrum and Kanban. Remember small steps, one by one? Then limit WIP.
  • Elimination of complicated processes can be done by value stream mapping and system redesign that will minimize the number of dependencies. It can apply to both organizational design and software architecture, and I assume to any other system with inter-dependencies and flows.
  • Elimination of complex management problems can be done with classic PM methods like planning, alternative scenarios, investigation of critical path/s, risk analysis. As somebody once said: the plan is made to be changed. Another commented: plans are useless, planning is indispensable.
  • Technical issues are often treated with what we call design choices in software architecture and engineering in general. I practice it in my personal life too.
  • Another good practice that preserves technical agility is to design the system in a way so to keep more design choices viable as long as possible over time without slowing down the development process. This requires extra effort and you have to manage the trade off.

Now, all that being said, you know that when you’re crawling under a dense fog…

Just close your eyes, touch the ground and play with you brain in Five complex steps. Your brain will play for you.