Making The Complex… Simple!

I have had the honor and privilege to work with brilliant people throughout my business career.  People who can take extraordinarily complex situations, analyze them and ultimately come up with wonderful solutions.  In short, they made the complex seem simple.  Here’s some tidbits I learned over the years that you might be able to use along your path to success.

  • Break it down into small pieces  – When facing an enormous project, I once expressed to one of my mentors that the scope of the project appeared overwhelming.  My mentor asked me if I knew how an aircraft carrier was built.  I looked at him with a curious look on my face and told him that I did not.  He said, “One bolt at a time.”  Simple but true.  An aircraft carrier is one of the largest and most complex structures ever built but you do not waive a magic wand to build it.  It is built one bolt at a time.  When your project seems too big to comprehend, break it down to the nuts and bolts and then carefully reconstruct it.
  • Start with what you know – Have you ever put a puzzle together?  At first, it looks impossible to find the right pieces that match each other.  I usually start with what I believe are the outside pieces because they are the easiest to find. You can recognize them by their straight edges.  Once you find all the straight edge pieces, you have a frame and can build from there.
  • Enlist help – When faced with complex problems, ask for help.  Remember that aircraft carrier will never be built by one person. Find people with the skills and desire to assist you.  Develop a team approach.  Delegate parts to the folks who have great insight.  Call in the experts!  You might be surprised how quickly that huge project can be accomplished when you get some help.
  • Don’t forget the goal  – There have been times when brilliant people have been enlisted to help break down a large problem but they get stuck in analysis.  You can get so fixated to a certain piece of the problem that you lose sight of the ultimate objective.  Eventually, all those nuts and bolts have to be brought together to compete the project.  Don’t forget what your ultimate objective is…. complete the project/solve the problem.

If you and/or your team are facing a complex problem or a project, I hope you can refer back to these points.  They have always helped me.  May they serve as a reminder to you that no problem or project is too big or complex to tackle.  Inch by inch, it’s a cinch! 🙂

Until next time…… Peace!


  1. Rick N.   •  

    Hi Ron,

    I like the ideas of your blog, and I’d like to explore them further.

    Yes, there are often ways to break a complex problem into simple pieces. Not always, though. How do we deal with
    problems that are inherently complicated and can’t be simplified? This is a case where one organization can succeed and other organizations fail. There are corporate cultures that cannot handle complex issues.

    Here is an example: An employee buys a repair part and you later discover that an equivalent part was available for
    quarter the price elsewhere. A few days later you find out an employee ordered 300 boxes of printer paper instead of 30. Typically, this is not considered a complicated problem and the solution is to have managers approve all purchases. You create such an oversight policy. Of course, over time, other mistakes happen and you react by creating additional error-handling policies and procedures. You are gradually creating what I’ll call an LCD-driven organization: an organization that is designed to prevent the lowest common denominator from making stupid mistakes.

    Your organization also has a few brilliant people, but all these dumbed-down rules and procedures are making them waste time on unproductive activity. Everyone looks busy, but nothing impressive is being achieved anymore. Why?

    Now you have do a complex problem: how should you balance preventing mistakes with allowing smart people free rein to create solutions? This is an inherently complex problem, and breaking it into little pieces won’t simplify it. In fact, it was many little decisions over time that created this broken organization in the first place.

    Your organizational culture emerged from those many small decisions – this may not be culture you intended to design.

    If you were to start again from scratch, you would design an organization around general principles (since you can’t create a rulebook for every special case).

    What are the general principles that will solve this problem?

    How would you write them down to create an organization driven to get the best performance out of the smartest people?

    Would you create error-preventing rules, or just let them happen and pay the cost?

  2. csoul   •     Author

    Rick, I have been traveling internationally and just returned to find your comments and questions. The examples you are laying out seem to have simple fixes that have turned into a complicated mess. The size of the mistakes you outline seem to be small in real dollar terms. I think you just learn from them and let them go rather than set up more and more “rules” or policies. Usually organizations that get overrun with rules have a lack of trust running throughout the organization. Mistakes will happen. It is good that your organization recognized the mistakes but setting up policies for every mistake, in the long run, bogs an organization down because everyone has to make sure they are not breaking rules. I would you general guidelines and principles to guide a company. My background in lending certainly had credit policy guidelines but they were just that guidelines. Not every situation can fit into a box or a set of rules. In healthy organizations, people are allowed to make mistakes, learn from them and then move on to be productive.
    In your situation, maybe there is a dollar threshold that if it is broken via a mistake, a review is made of why the mistake occurred with the people who make it and everyone agrees on how they might prevent the mistake in the future. If you continue to have folks making mistakes either there is a training issue or an HR issue that needs to be dealt with…. I hope this helps. Sorry for the delayed response but feel free to get back with me. Remember the keys are trust, training and hiring the right people. 🙂

  3. Rick N.   •  

    Slides 41-64 of the Netflix handbook – has a good discussion about this problem. The summary is that they increase talent density (hire smarter people and pay them more) to lift the lowest common denominator, and they design for rapid error recovery rather than error prevention.

    Unfortunately, it takes Netflix 23 slides to describe their solution. I would love a simpler rule of thumb.

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