Reducing complexity is an act of creativity

Solving complex problems with creativity means creating order from chaos by stripping away what's not important, with a human-centric approach.

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In 2002, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke the following words:

“[A]s we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

The quote may sound strange, but it is useful since it illustrates the difference between simple (or clear, obvious), complicated, complex, and chaotic problems (or systems).

  • known knowns: the problem is simple, everything is predictable.
  • known unknowns: the problem is complicated but still measurable and analysable. We know what we don’t know.
  • unknown knowns: the problem is complex, we are aware of uncertainty. We don’t know what we know.
  • unknown unknowns: the problem is chaotic, things are constantly changing. We don’t know what we don’t know.

Three years before Rumsfeld uttered his haiku, Dave Snowden came up with the Cynefin framework. It deals with exactly these four different types of problems, plus a fifth one called disorder. That’s the case when we even don’t know which kind of problem (or system) we are dealing with.

By Edwin Stoop of Sketching Maniacs, License

How to tackle complexity

The current pandemic started out in this fifth realm, the realm of disorder. Was this novel severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) simply a new disease, or maybe a complicated one? Would it turn out to be complex or chaotic? No one knew. Soon, it developed into a complex and often chaotic situation: a global, unprecedented crisis. All measures share a common goal: to move the problem from chaotic to complex, from complex to complicated, and then maybe even simple.

When the exponential threat of viral infections gets out of control, the situation is chaotic. Drastic measures are required to re-establish order and the complex system of contemporary society, to keep things manageable. For 15 months now, this system has been running under restrictions of varying severity, always bordering chaos in most Western countries. Other countries, like Australia and New Zealand, decided to push the problem back into complicatedness, sometimes even approaching simplicity, by closing their borders and near-eliminating the virus.

It is not the pathogen itself but our response to it that decides the nature of the problem. And that’s the idea of the Cynefin framework. We need to acknowledge where we are before we push the challenge back from chaotic to complex, from complex to complicated or even simple. It doesn’t make sense to tackle complex problems with solutions tailored to complicated problems. But how do we tackle complexity, and what’s the role of creativity here?

Creativity reduces complexity

In a corporate context, creativity is often formalised in design capabilities. So let’s reframe the question: What’s the role of design in solving complex problems? Good design strives for simplicity. At this point, it’s inevitable that we quote Steve Jobs:

“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Good design and creativity reduce complexity. Digital technology has made this harder, since the computer is a general-purpose machine, implying that it can be used for anything. This easily leads to feature creep, and the designer’s first job often is to take away things. Keep it simple translates to make it simple. The designer constantly battles entropy. This is creative work in the original sense of the word: creating order from chaos. And that of course isn’t limited to designers. Anyone can be creative; cleaning up the kitchen is creating order from chaos as well.

A human-centric approach

The question remains: How can we do that? If the situation is chaotic, the remedies are first aid and first responders. As soon as a certain amount of order is established, but the situation is still complex, we can try out things: conduct experiments that are safe to fail. This is the root of an agile approach. You don’t bet the whole farm unless you’re a start-up, but you learn by testing your hypotheses. A lightweight and fast way to do this is the design sprint. Here we are in the realm of design thinking:

“Design teams use design thinking to tackle ill-defined/unknown problems (aka wicked problems) because they can reframe these in human-centric ways and focus on what’s most important for users.”

Human-centric is the important bit here. That’s something we have been discussing on this blog for years. You need the digital humanist, the creative genius at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, to achieve this. The modern Leonardo da Vinci. It’s not enough to simply deploy design thinking to the early phases and agile development to the implementation. You need a holistic, human-centric, creative approach. It’s not so much about certain methods. These are simply tools.

Creativity is about creating order from chaos by reducing complexity, by stripping away what’s not important for users (or human beings). Like a sculptor who chips away the marble until his masterpiece appears.

I’ll leave you with a quote from designer and innovative humanitarian Dara Dotz:

“We aren’t going to be able to throw tech at every problem as efficiently or effectively as we would like — as time moves on, there are more disasters, more people and less resources. Instead of focusing on the next blockchain or AI, perhaps the things we really need to focus on are the things that make us human.”

Last updated on June 28, 2021. Photo by Petar Petkovski on Unsplash

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