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The Cost of Complexity

We live in a complex world. Our life is complex. This post will help you reflect on the cost of complexity and what you can do about it.

Complexity distracts you from getting the important stuff done by constantly having to spin your wheels doing things that don't really add value. Complexity can even feel productive and efficient, since you are doing stuff that appear as if they must be done to achieve progress. Each time you add something, you increase complexity. The decision feels good, because individually everything you add seem to make sense. Only when you stack them all one on the other does it become unmanageable. Complexity is deceptive.

The Cost of Complexity
Photo by Ricardo Esquivel from Pexels

Complexity comes in many shapes and forms.

  • The way you express yourself in writing (long emails and email chains, too many - or poor quality - notes).
  • Unused apps on your phone. Online services you subscribe to (including free subscriptions).
  • Bankcards, credit cards, loyalty cards, membership cards.
  • Your data, including data formats, master data, taxonomy. Your data stored and managed by others.
  • Dealing with bureaucracy to get things done.
  • Owning too much stuff. Where should you put it? When should you use it? Was it worth the price? Does it require maintenance?
  • Your relationships.

What would be the right question to ask?

What would be the right question to ask?

The issue of complexity has been on my mind me for some time now. We know complexity can be a bad thing, at minimum, that it can be costly. But what would be the right question to ask regarding complexity?

  • Is it inevitable? Is there another way? Can it be avoided?
  • How can you simplify?
  • How can you measure complexity?
  • Is simpler always better, or is there an optimum level of complexity?
  • What is the price of complexity?

Consider this simple example

For the sake of a concrete example let's consider the applications on your phone.

  • Could you simplify your experience? How?
  • Do you need all of those apps? Which ones would you remove if you had to remove 10%, 20% or 50%?
  • Would you remove apps, or rather improve findability of the apps by organizing them based on feature? based on time or place of use? based on frequency of use?
  • What is the cost of having so many apps? I don't just mean the cost of the app in the App Store, but the time you have invested into searching for it, trying it out, learning how to use it, registering for the service, remembering the password, populating it with data, looking for it on your phone and trying to remember what it is called?

    What if you could put a price tag on complexity?

    Price tag on complexity

    What if you could put a price tag on complexity? Would that effect your behavior?

    Pricing of detrimental biproducts (such as complexity) is a well known solution in economics. Carbon pricing for example was introduced in many countries over the past decade. According to Wikipedia "Carbon pricing seeks to address the economic problem that CO2, a known greenhouse gas, is ... a detrimental product that is not priced (charged for) by any market. As a consequence of not being priced, there is no market mechanism responsive to the costs of CO2 emitted. The standard economic solution to problems of this type, first proposed by Arthur Pigou in 1920, is for the product - in this case, CO2 emissions - to be charged at a price equal to the monetary value of the damage caused by the emissions, or the societal cost of carbon. This should result in the economically optimal (efficient) amount of CO2 emissions. Many practical concerns complicate the theoretical simplicity of this picture: for example, the exact monetary damage caused by a tonne of CO2 remains to some degree uncertain." ... and exactly the same can be said about complexity.

    Does the price of complexity increase exponentially?

    I don't have formal proof for my assumption, but I feel as if the cost of complexity may be increasing exponentially with every additional piece you add to the puzzle. With COVID-19 we are all experiencing a bitter live demonstration of exponential growth. Exponential growth is deceptive in the beginning. During the first few steps you don't even notice that there is a problem, and then suddenly, it gets out of hand extremely quickly.

    Comparing Growth Curves
    • Linear growth: If one cup of coffee costs $4 then ten cups cost $40.
    • 2nd Order Polynomial growth: Number of handshakes as the size of the group increases is N*(N-1)/2 where N is the size of the group.
      Handshakes in a group of size N
    • Exponential growth: COVID-19

    How can you quantify complexity?

    How can you quantify complexity?


    Let's consider another example. Every one of us has a Personal Knowledge Management system. For some people this is an elaborate system supported by technical tools, for others, this may simply be their brain, their memory. How do you experience the cost of complexity?

    • It's the time you spend searching for some information that you know you have, but you are not able to find.
    • It can be understood as the extra time you need to invest when you are reading a book that is overly complicated.
    • Complexity has a price in terms of reusability of information, when you create some data but you end up having to rework the whole thing because you didn't think of something.
    • Cost could also be associated with integration between systems, or impact of system upgrades or changes. For example, the effort of moving from one note taking app to another, and then another, and another, and leaving a trail of half finished migrations that you must keep in mind when searching for information.

    Most often the cost of complexity is measured in the additional time and effort required to achieve progress.

    While it is extremely hard to measure the extra time and effort required, it is usually relatively easy to find leading indicators that drive complexity, such as the number of apps on your phone, the number of tools you use in your daily workflow, the number of tags you use to store information, the number of folders you manage on your PC, the number of clicks in an application to achieve a function, etc.

    So what?

    Once you identify the metric, you can start to optimize yourself to minimize (or maximize, depending on your metric) its value. Over time this approach should move you closer to the optimum level of complexity.

    Also, what ever your craft may be, always strive to deliver products that simplify.

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