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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.

Complexity distracts us from the Important by constantly having to spin our wheels, doing things that don’t add value, but seem unavoidable. Complexity can even “feel” productive and efficient, since you are accomplishing work that appears necessary to achieve progress. Lean methodologies call this WASTE.

Each time you add something to your personal workflow, to your home, to your life, to the thing you are working on…, you inevitably increase complexity. This is the case even if the decision to add feels right, because on a micro-level, it makes sense. But when you stack them all, one on the other, it becomes 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).
  • How you store and manage your knowledge.
  • 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?

Complexity has been on my mind me for some time now. Complexity is costly. I wonder, however, what the right question to ask would be?

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

Consider this simple example:

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, learning it, registering for the service, remembering the password, populating it with data, looking for it on your phone not remembering how it’s 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 affect your behavior?

Pricing of detrimental byproducts (such as complexity) is a well-known solution in economics. For example, many countries have introduced carbon pricing 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 is true about complexity.

Does the price of complexity increase exponentially?

I don’t have formal proof, but I feel that the cost of complexity increases exponentially with every additional piece we add. With COVID-19 we are all experiencing a bitter live demonstration of exponential growth. Exponential growth is deceptive in the beginning. During the first steps, you don't even notice that there is a problem, and then suddenly, it gets out of hand.

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 cannot find.
  • The extra time you need to invest when you are reading a convoluted book.
  • Complexity has a price in terms of information reusability, when you create some data but you end up doing rework because you didn’t think of something.
  • Cost of integration between systems, or impact of system upgrades and 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 you must keep in mind when searching for information.

Most often, the cost of complexity is 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 begin to optimize, minimizing (or maximizing, depending on your metric) its value. Over time, this approach should move you closer to the optimum.

Whatever your craft may be, please strive to deliver products that simplify!

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