Guest Contributor: Matt Hillman
We want things to be simple—work, life, marketing. We like to believe that slashing out portions will make those things simpler, but it really only makes them incomplete. Taking the body off a car certainly simplifies it, but now you’ve created complication around aerodynamics; taking steps out of the marketing process might speed it up, but you might have added complexity around quality or costs or impact.
First, let’s make sure we’re saying the same thing when we talk about complication and complexity, because—ironically enough—it’s complicated and the two are not synonymous. Complication is about process, those inefficiencies or extra steps that don’t fit our ideal of how actions should play out. “The product launch was delayed by unforeseen complications.” In a situation where we have a reasonable chance of forecasting a result, we can identify complication and even model it, setting an expectation.
Complexity, on the other hand, is about relationships and how people or things are interconnected. “Developing the online promotion involved four different departments, took five weeks, and was highly complex.” Relationships are usually much harder to model and forecasting an end result is difficult, if not impossible, due to the number of variables.
Another way of thinking about it, as organizational development consultant and professor Dr. Mark Federman breaks it down: “baking cookies is simple…going to the moon is complicated…raising children is complex.”
SIMPLE OR COMPLEX?
So first let’s consider simple vs. complex. As we become progressively burdened with information and inundated with data sources, the idea of making things simple is understandably sexy these days. But as tempting as it is to “just make it simpler,” whatever steps are removed from a system—a process, an input, or even a person—that information has to go somewhere. You can’t just will it away or throw it out, but instead have to account for it in the simplified system or else you have to give up one of your core parameters: time, scope, or quality.
It’s an idea I’m calling The Law of Conservation of Complexity—complexity can be neither created nor destroyed, only converted to a different state. So you could remove steps from a process to make it “simpler,” but in reality you’re just taking out inputs and likely shortchanging the end result. That complexity, those inputs, serve as ingredients in a recipe. Is it easier, faster, and simpler to bake a cake without salt? Sure, but the end result probably won’t meet expectations. There are consequences for simplification.
Here, simplification becomes a matter of negotiation: What are you willing to give up that isn’t as important to you in order to gain what is important to you? Or in the marketing world, what end-result of the complex system are you willing to give up—“good, fast, or cheap”—in order to gain a measure of simplicity?
SIMPLICITY OR COMPLICATION?
Simplicity vs. complication, however, is another matter. Complication is more about the process itself, our expectations about it, and simplification means identifying inefficiencies. What can we give up to streamline the process and still maintain the desired output? Can we reduce complication and improve the “user experience” in a process? Absolutely…but (you probably knew there’d be one of those) complication is…well, complicated.
Just because a process contains multiple steps, that’s no guarantee that the complicated process is inefficient or even undesirable. In fact, complication can be a good thing in that it’s comprehensive: How our immune system protects us is incredibly complicated, and that’s why it works so well most of the time. We actually need layer upon layer for the whole system to work correctly—take part out, and we have a problem.
GET SIMPLE SMARTER
So what is a marketer to do to simplify? How can we trim the fat of complication without undermining the legitimately needed complexity? Here are three things to consider:
- What is the end goal?
How you approach marketing simplification needs to be based in what you’re hoping to achieve. Without a specific goal in mind—reduce costs, increase impressions, etc.—the level of complication or complexity isn’t the real issue.
- What are you willing to give up in order to gain it?
In business and marketing, we tend to have the three desirables in mind: good, fast, and cheap. Consider which two of these are your top priorities, because you’ll need to sacrifice the other to get those preferred options. Similarly, consider what you’re willing to surrender in an end result so you can simplify the process getting there.
- Is truly over-complicated or just hard to understand?
Complication isn’t the enemy of simplicity, inefficiency is. If removing elements adversely impacts the end product, chances are the complication isn’t superfluous or unnecessary, but instead a fundamental part of what makes the system work the way it should. If the campaign needs 12 elements to work, that’s complicated—if it can achieve the same results with 6 elements, that’s over-complicated.
The reality is that simplification will always be a journey, not a destination. And that’s okay. The act of evaluating and seeking ways to simplify is a great way of “weeding the garden,” to remove the parts that are getting in the way. But learning to appreciate complication is a useful way to alleviate some of the stress associated with it and find peace with the fact “it’s complicated.”