Home » Archive » Build simple tools. Honor complexity.

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

Building tools for investors is oft times tricky business. Below are two intentions we try to follow:

1. Build simple tools that do just what you need and nothing you don’t.

2. Honor complexity; pillage complication. Let things be inter-connected but do not twist.

The first intention is directly related to a fascination with pure craftsmanship. The second is the result of a paper read long ago about wicked problems.

I once spent three months in Ukraine. I can’t remember why but one of those ninety-some days was invested in watching a man run a foot-pumped lathe while he hand-carved spindles for a staircase.

These were his tools: a chisel, a piece of wood, and a spinning lathe.

I was mesmerized. Intricate, graceful forms emerged – almost breathed out – of hewn hardwood. In a shower of shavings what was formless became timeless.

Standing there, dust billowing around us, he explained his work. A slight turn of the chisel sliced great arcs from the wood. A fraction more pressure nearly drove the knife through the heart of the block.

Watching those minute changes that wrought such remarkable beauty taught me the treasure of simplicity. Simplicity enables nuance. Nuance imbues craftsmanship.

In 1998 Jeffrey Conklin and William Weil wrote a paper called “Wicked Problems: Naming the Pain in Organizations“. It changed me. I remember buzzing about it afterwards.

I felt I saw the root of the confusion that so often dominated my strategic policy work. I felt free to seek answers in ways that felt natural but didn’t fit the normal corporate context.

Conklin and Weil start with a quote by Laurence J. Peter (who was, apparently, an obnoxious man): “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

I think that sentence is brilliant. First, problems are wickedly complex. That’s the reality. Second, even if you’re outrageously bright – it’s not enough. Third, even if you can bring a mountain of information, you’ll just barely crest the hill. Together: for the bright and highly informed few that approach the summit, there is still a long road ahead. To me – that’s the challenge I love.

That article and Mr. Peter’s quote became reasons for me to start this business I am in.

I want to embrace complexity. Instead of fighting it – I think we should use it. But I agree with Mr. Peter, being well-informed is essential. Turns out, it’s also rare.

In May, 2008 Harvard Business Review published an article by John C. Camillus titled “Strategy as a Wicked Problem“. It too changed me.

The Camillus work reminded me of where our work started. This whole thing started as an experiment. In fact, the blog used to be called “The Sift Every Thing Experiment“. As the concept matured I thought we should drop the “experiment” bit – feeling it eroded the “brand image”. Plus, clients were starting to worry. Were they our experiments?

But the Camillus article has made me reconsider that choice. He advises leaders to “abandon the convention of thinking through all [options] before choosing a single one, and experiment with a number of strategies that are feasible even if the [implications are unclear].” And later he writes that “to tackle wicked problems, smart companies conduct experiments, launch innovative pilot programs, test prototypes – and make mistakes from which they can learn.”

Experiments honor complexity. They admit, by their very nature, that answers are unclear. This admission engages curiosity, play, and adventure. And this is important because these are the only worthy foes of status quo, precedent, and pat answers.

(Note: If interested, there is a longer, more detailed article at our corporate site.)

On the flip side there is always the risk of complicating things while trying to be too simple. Einstein is often credited with advising that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Do not twist.

Do not flippantly white-wash basic principles. Do not accept myriad additional mechanisms for further refinement when earlier versions get it done.

From my hero, Henry David Thoreau:

“It is a rare qualification to be able to state a fact simply and adequately.
To digest some experience cleanly.
To say yes and no with authority – to make a square edge.
To conceive and suffer the truth to pass through us living and intact…
Say it and have done with it. Express it without expressing ourself.”

Journal (November 1, 1851)

There is a darkness that closes in around complex questions. It creates a kind of fear in decision-makers. It turns good people into lazy thinkers. I know. I feel it.

The only light that can chase that darkness away is a cleaner and finer knowing. It means a deep investment in tools that refine disparate data into real, practical knowledge. Only a very few are willing to pay this price.

But my guess is this: Until that price is paid, good people will shy away. Important choices will not be made. Chosers will be faced down, bullied by imposing uncertainty. Better information can change the world by simply helping people face the darkness and touch it without fear. It’s not sufficient, but it gets us started.


Twitter works!

Being a student of Conklin and having read those documents I really enjoyed this post. Love the way you made your point and will be reading more of the articles on this site.

kind regards

Paul Culmsee
(practicing dialogue mapper)

Thanks Paul. Glad to have you reading. Nice to connect with you on twitter.