“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
The longer I have been on this leadership journey, the more profound this Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. quote becomes, largely because I have seen so many well-intentioned people just stop and hang out in the muck and confusion of the “complexity” rather than continue to push through to the simplicity on the other side. Maybe for some people, it is easier to remain mired down in the intricate details because that provides the cover for continued information gathering and considering of options rather than committing to a decision that might be the wrong one. For most leaders, however, I think they just don’t realize that simplicity is an option. It is.
Make no mistake, “getting to the other side” is not an easy task. You can’t just go there first. The simplicity on the other side is not the novice’s basic understanding, which is found on “this side” of complexity. It is recognizing the layers and complicated variables of the situation — most clearly understood by walking through the midst of it — and then distilling the multiple scenarios, contingencies, and possibilities down into a path to the other side. And there is a path, but it will only become obvious when you are intentional about looking for it.
Following are a few pointers for the journey:
- It will feel like a “hot mess” when you are in the midst of it. This is where a bit of experience helps. Once you have made the journey a time or two, it is easier to trust the process (okay, maybe not easier, but I have learned to repeatedly remind myself . . . trust the process!). I have yet to get to the other side without first feeling like I would never get there. This is usually because I try to shortcut the journey and find the path forward without walking all the way through the complexity. Keep forging ahead.
- Get all the layers and variables down — in writing — before you try to consolidate your thinking. There is something about getting everything in print, with input from multiple sources, that allows you to see patterns that elude you when simply talking or rolling things around in your mind. Don’t try to categorize as you go, just get it all down. Trying to fit everything into a box too soon can result in missing points of connection.
- You can’t rush the process, and you need a deadline. Yes, I know this seems contradictory. In my experience, the deadline is necessary to push you through the process, but you also have to let things “percolate” for a while. Sleep on it. Leave it alone for a bit. Then come back to the information and trust that a path will emerge.
What needs simplifying in your organization? The journey may not be easy, but it is absolutely worth the effort. See you on the other side.