Matt Ridings on the complex – problem solving

Complex simply and literally means “with folds”, a folded thing. Matt Riding has a beautiful post up on solution finding when faced with a folded thing:

What is complex?

For me personally, “complex” most closely resembles “nuanced”. Those things that can be comprehended, but not easily explained in simple terms. That tends to mean I’m discussing concepts with variable implications, philosophy would be a good example of something I can find extremely complex.

Then there are “complex” systems. These are the things we most commonly come across in our day to day lives. Your car is one representation, a corporate marketing strategy might be another, biology, various ecosystems, the weather, and so on. It is these everyday systems that cause us so much angst. When we are overwhelmed it is most often due to the fact that we are viewing things through that macro lens of complexity, “I have SO much to do, how will I ever get it all done?!”, “I’ve been made responsible for some huge project but I don’t even know where to begin!”.

The Complexity of Simple

Part of what I do for a living is consult for organizations who have large complex system challenges, and need to derive a strategic solution in very short order. I’m a ‘fixer’ if you will. A specific example might be developing an overriding social strategy that can be integrated throughout an organizations silos. While there are a lot of tools in my toolbox for achieving that, I’ll let you in on my biggest secret. A complex system, is only complex at the macro level. It is always made up of components that are relatively simple. If you can learn to break systems down to whatever level of simplicity you require you can achieve virtually anything. While sometimes not so obvious, you’ll see this theme repeated over and over throughout my posts.

via techguerilla talk – Matt Ridings.

There are several valuable thoughts here – Matt is confessing his trade secret, what makes he really good at what he does – but there is something about this point that is itself com-plex, or as he says, nuanced. The recommendation is easy: when faced with a folded thing, in particular a thing with many, many folds, Unfold it! And then as he suggests, work on in at the fold level. But this requires a sense of how all the folds fit together, and comprehensively how a little re-fold over here will effect all the other folds of the thing (or not at all). The shorthand for this kind of knowledge, a repository for the sense-of-how-it-works, often is kept in a kind of “best practices” sort of list that is memorized or we just become accustomed to, be they rules of thumb for link building for SEO questions, or  “Do unto others…” rules for human being questions.

The true beauty of complexity comes instead from the nuance itself, the way that all the folds together work to have a single, though possibly infinitely varied effect that defies simple encapsulation. This is where the art of solution-finding takes place. This is where the rule of thumb, the best practices, are abandoned as blind templates and each fold and series of folds is done with some reflexive feeling of what the effect will be. That is when the screw turn on the carburetor registers in the sound the car makes when you gas it.

I do agree that when faced with complexity you unfold it, but you unfold it with very sensitive hands, feeling how the folds register upon the whole thing. And when a complex thing is broken, either wide parts of the fabric need to be refolded in a different way, or perhaps it deserves to be a different sort of origami altogether. Sometime though we start out with a plain white sheet.


2 thoughts on “Matt Ridings on the complex – problem solving

  1. Great post. If we continue to use the car example, what I’m trying to get across is that in most complex systems it is the ability to ‘work backwards’ or reverse engineer that has so much value. The main differentiator of course, is experience. In my specific field I intuitively know the nuances of those folds and the various implications of what occurs when I change one of those folds. That allows me to skip past some of the reverse engineering and dive straight to the heart of the matter. Much like the fact that *anyone* can fix a broken car if they are willing to work backwards and teach themselves along the way what each of those components does…but a mechanic earns his money by skipping past all of that and having a good idea of why it’s not idling correctly because he’s seen it a million times. This is also why I don’t have much fear in giving away my ‘trade secret’ 😉

    Thanks for the great insight.

    • Thanks for the reply Matt, and I do like your analogy of the car. The car is so much a regular thing in our lives. Its is everywhere, and seamlessly so, but all of us know when a car is not working right. Sometimes we go to the mechanic and we can’t even put the “noise” it suddenly is making right into words, or how it isn’t steering right any longer. It is clear that cars effect us in very nuanced ways we aren’t even aware of, a symphony of effects. (Of course brokenness can be very obvious as well.) Its just parts, but its also how those effects fold together like so many fingers. And very much so, it is experience with those parts that makes “fixing” an art.

      But I also liked your “Do the dishes” example as well. There are simple things, at the “fold” level, when following rules of thumb, that can do wonders and dispel the power Complexity has to overwhelm and mystify and shutdown investigation or problem solving.

      Its a combination of art (inspired) and craft (learned), it seems. But your make-it-simple advice is right on. Again, thank you for your thought-provoking post.

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