Are We Biased to the Simple or Complex?

A friend sent me a very long treatise about complexity. The author contends that we, as humans, have a confirmation bias towards complexity.

I’m not linking to it because I found the writing too complex to read. I’m not going to inflict that on you. However, I do think the question is useful: are we biased towards the simple or the complex? (Update: I did link to the paper because a reader requested it.)

You may have heard of Occam’s Razor, which we can paraphrase as: given two possible explanations, the simpler explanation is probably correct.

Supposedly, Einstein said (there’s disagreement about whether that’s an actual quote),

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

The problem is this: not every problem has a simple solution.

Here’s a simple problem with a simple solution: I just bumped my tea as I picked it up. I made my sleeve a little wet. This is a simple problem with simple solutions: live with the wet, change my shirt, start to use a cover on my tea, and possibly more options. I’m living with the wetness. It’s not worth my time to change.

I suppose the article’s author might think the cover on my tea mug is a complex solution. If I had this problem multiple times a day, it might not be a complex solution; it might be a reasonable approach.

Instead of asking about the confirmation bias or the simple/complex choice (note that there is no third choice!), here’s what I’ve seen:

When problems are complex, they tend to have these characteristics:

  • There are several possible causes, and they might all affect how I see the problem. (My mental models.)
  • There might be delays, and I might not be able to see all the delays in this problem.
  • People in the system react differently to the problem. Those reactions might change the possible causes.

Complex problems might be non-deterministic. That is, given the same inputs, the outputs might not be the same every time.

The more I think about the problem’s simplicity or complexity, the more I wonder if we want simple answers to complex problems. I know I do!

Cynefin framework Feb 2011That desire for simplicity might make people want recipes for complex problems. That’s one reason I like the Cynefin framework for thinking about problems. Notice that problems aren’t just simple or complex. Problems can be simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, or the entire situation can be disordered.

In projects, I often see complexity (and muddled thinking) as a result of a simple-to-describe problem. Here’s an example: If everyone on the project multitasks, the project progresses slowly (if at all), people make mistakes because they lose context, and organization puts significant pressure on the people or team to finish or deliver something. (People don’t agree on what that thing is, so the entire system is a reinforcing loop, with more pressure creating more problems.)

If you don’t know or realize multitasking causes all these problems, the problem feels complex. If you don’t know how to manage the project portfolio, you might think this is a complex problem with several complex solutions.

However, the cause is simple: multitasking. If you know what to do, the situation might be complicated, but not complex.

I find that too often, people want the problem to be simple when it’s complicated or complex. I hope you consider your problem frame when you think about your biases.

That is the question this week: Are we biased to the simple or the complex?

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