insights and their relationship with complexity


“Releasing complexity is a much different process than reducing complexity.”

Bonnitta Roy


I propose insights don’t reduce complexity, but rather release complexity. For people to agree with that they will need to agree to several things:

  • Everything is connected with everything, in other words, insights are about connectivity and connectivity is made up of minute linear fractals within a non linear complexity.

Note: this means fractals relate linearly at a minute level

Complexity is non-linear. It could be said that postindustrial societies are more complex than premodern societies—there are many more things happening, in many more domains (largely because of how networked/entangled we have become). Likewise, it could be said that a tropical rainforest is more complex than a cornfield, or a parking lot. But is ‘more’ complexity ‘better’?

There is no objectively correct answer here, of course. It’s a ridiculous question.

But, for what its worth, I suspect that the more we lean into ‘complexity thinking’ (lived and embraced)—the savvier we get at coordinating at higher orders of complexity—the better we will be at navigating the myriad hypercomplex transnational challenges of our times.

  • Simplicity is found within complexity NOT instead of complexity (coherent linear fractals represent the complex whole)
  • Complicated is reflective of ineffective, inefficient, linear fractals (limiting features)
  • Complexity is reflective of effective, efficient connectivity (expansive features)

I propose insights are not causally linear (they simply release a non linear aspect of probabilities) nor are they simple rather they are reflective of unleashing complexity’s non-linear potential. To be clear. Insights may appear simple, because at their best they focus on some linear fractal, but they are complex in nature.

Clarity on insights

The main issue with insights is the lack of clarity. The lack of clarity is actually explainable because there are product insights, human insights, organizational insights, behavioral insights, mental insights, shit, insights on insights. They can be big, medium, small and, yet, big insights can create small effects and small insights can create big effect. Maybe another way of saying this is that insights look very much like finite things, yet, are actually infinite.

Note: clarity and language

We all play a role in guiding shared language. I should note language is always shared within context (words can take on different meaning in different environments) including organizational, community and culture. Accepted, or rejected, by whether it flows or not. In other words, perspective shapes the language and the language shapes the perspective (non linear or causal, but looped).

(recommended reading: How to Speak Human/Jackson & Jackson)

I will offer two thoughts on insights in order to try and get a grip on the infinite aspect:

  • Distribution and benefit of distribution
  • Insight hunters have distinct abilities


Distribution & benefit

  1. We should think of insights in terms of distribution.

By viewing an insight from a distribution stance we can assess it at its most functional aspect – a connection in which there is a transferal of something between a & b. Within a complex world the closer you can get to identifying the distribution connection as possible the more likely you are to find something that can move the behavioral, attitudinal or emotional dial. Some people may haggle and say this is about connectivity and they would be partially correct. Correct in that by viewing this in distribution terms you are delving into the connection, but in treating it like distribution you view it as a distinct transferal of value, goods, feelings, etc*. This translates into a pragmatic view of an insight.

** note: for example, in the Insight world Valentine’s Day is not a transferal of cards, chocolate or diamonds, but rather a transferal of feeling (me-to-you) wherein it is defined in a specific way to context.

  1. We should think of insights in terms of the benefit of that distribution

What is the consequence/impact of that distribution:

  • Does it improve it (solve a complication)?
  • More efficient?
  • More effective
  • What is the value in the transferal connectivity or the value in what is given or in what is gained?

Rather than simply seeing this as “something gained” the insight would reflect “something offered” within this fractal connection (a linear moment within complex nonlinear connective relationships).


Insight hunters

“Insight hunters” should do some reflective thinking. They should because they have some distinct abilities:

  • Can identify patterns among linear relationships, thus for­m­­ing syst­ems of relations among abstract variables and how these inter­act.
  • Can compare and synthesize several systems with differing logics, put together “metasystems” or conclusions that hold true across different system, reflect upon and name general properties of systems.
  • Can see how one system can be changed in corresponding or differing ways to another system.
  • Can deal with several very abstract metasystems to create new ways of thinking of the world, new paradigms.
  • Has a fractal way of thinking, so that the universal principles found are applicable to many different levels of analysis and phenomena.

(source: The Listening Society by Hanzi Freinacht)

I would suggest if you do not have these distinct abilities you may not be an effective insight hunter.

1. The confusion between simplicity and the illusion of simplicity

Nothing is really simple. There is only the illusion of simplicity. Simplicity is a magician’s trick, a sleight of hand, when done well. It gives one a sense of simplicity, a sense of elegant brevity, a “known” for us to ignore – or accept – the unknown.

The issue in doing this is that we then confuse simplicity with complexity by bifurcating them – when they are actually one & the same (or simplicity is the shadow of complexity). In a complex confusing world this can be quite handy. But in a complex, confusing world this creates a sense that there really is simplicity and simple things – and there are not. While maybe in a smaller sense, like some insights, this may be (slightly) acceptable I would argue tin the longer game and the bigger sense you are simply creating a problem you will have to deal with at some point in the future. And, as we all know, problems snowball. So what you have claimed as simplicity today will have all its complexity begin snowballing at that exact time and inevitably you will have a shitstorm of an avalanche to deal with.

I am not arguing against elegant simplicity in narratives/descriptions. They are handy heuristics getting people from here to there thought wise. What I am arguing against is not accepting you are simply sharing the illusion of simplicity.

In the insight world, in the complexity management world and in the business world, in general, using the illusion of simplicity is, well, business malpractice. You are simply a peddler in fortune cookie wisdom.

So how should we view insight discovery? Think of it as peering into the shadow of complexity. Assume complexity is good and it represents the incredible weave of productivity, positive progress, possibilities and people potential. This means complexity is your friend and simplicity is the most effective way of introducing your friend to everyone else. This is most often articulated as ‘an insight.’ This is important because complexity, in and of itself, is mind numbing and an amorphous blob of confusing interrelationships. This leads me to something Jackson & Jackson said “complexity isn’t the issue, its confusion.’ Simplicity, therefore, is non-confusing complexity offering the highest order of value generation (understanding, beliefs, attitudes, behavior impulse). Yes. Make things easy to understand and while it may be complex, it feels simple and useful. The insights, therefore, has released the power of complexity through its understandability.


Subset: the binary illusion

If linearity is seductive, binaries are seductively dangerous. They are a simplistic attempt to formalize relationships between different abstract variables. Its silly. Its simplicity is dangerous. And its mostly wrong. The allure of them is understandable for 2 reasons:

  • The best answers are often found in contraries. Great good presupposes great evil. In fact, one cannot be present, relatively speaking, without the other. It is uncommon to find both polarities within one person, but it is not unknown. Predicating thought on a binary framework makes sense, making conclusions from a binary does not make sense.
  • The complexity of the world around us, and within us, defies easy definitions and binaries permit false contrasts to provide definitions. It is natural to respond to a complex world in simplified manners: black & white, either/or, us versus them, this/that.


I suggest the road to binary thinking is the search for stability/certainty (optimal certainty**. This is actually where insights reside. Below the surface of complexity outcomes lies a complex arrangement of fractal connections. By rummaging around the connections between what a person grounds themselves on behaviorwise/attitudewise (lily pads of certainty) or some recurring patterns that ground everyday life AND the more nebulous inconsistent interactions/connections with the daily moments of uncertainty. These are actual ‘fractal simplicities’ or what Alvin Toffler warned us of in 1980 with the advent of mass consumed technology – halfisms versus wholisms.


 ** optimal certainty: optimizing adaptive change within an existing construct. Offer enough probability so people can accept the uncertain realities.

Insights actually straddle halfsims and wholisms (albeit we could suggest insights are halfisms which lead to a wholism). Regardless. Insights reflect a connection TO the truthism while not offering the whole truth in and of itself.

Earlier I suggested complexity is expansive. This translates into a belief an insight, articulated through understandable simplicity, should release complexity potential.

We cannot eliminate complexity, its air. Breathe it or suffocate. That said. I believe the fractal connections are the oxygen and within that oxygen are the insights.  I say that to make a point about the bigness, and smallness, of this entire issue and how we may struggle with the concept of ‘insight’ if it is neither simple nor big or small, yet, IS, in its fractal simplicity, big and small. Let me explain.

Life, the world, the individual’s behavior is like a spinning three dimensional double helix. You can look at an individual that way – personalized string of DNA constantly in motion – in which its configuration subtly adapts contextually based on need/want, functional, emotional & social. Somewhere therein an insight seeker must identify and pluck out an insight. The insight lies somewhere within a fractal, halfism, connection which resides within a larger context (wholism).


That said. I propose that insights, generally speaking, release complexity in one of three ways:

(**note: this thought kills customer journey. Full disclosure. I have used customer journeys to make a point but in its simplicity, it more often offers false connections & false conclusions than it does any insightful, non-superficial, results)


  1. Seamless

This is about fitting in to an existing double helix DNA behavioral map. Success, with this type of insight, more often than not, is not creating something new forcing people to do something different, but rather fitting in <in a new way> what they are currently doing. This insight is all about “persuasion versus accepting”. Persuading someone that they should do, or try, something versus having someone accept something as part of the natural flow of Life & what they do.

I will note this insight is tricky because while it CAN be about improvement, “broken connections” (fractals) fixed simply puts a system back to the normal complexity. You may be solving a specific complication but, in reality, it reverts back to a “comfortable complexity.” This may sound like semantics, but in an insight world in which we attempt to want to espouse “improvements bettering people’s lives” seamless insights are actually more about “doing something that no one really notices.”

Ponder that.


  1. Nudge

There are a number of excellent books defining and discussing a “nudge” insight. Nudge (Thaler), Tipping Point (Gladwell), Herd (Earls), The Choice Factory (Shotton) … all discuss aspects of nudging type thinking. That said. This type of insight is carefully incongruent to the natural flow of things. Its comfortably uncomfortable (or uncomfortably comfortable). It nudges your entire rotating double helix of behavior so its axis shifts without discombobulating the entire flow of someone’s life.

You fail if it shifts the ground people stand on and succeed if people feel like they remain on solid ground, but actually have eased into a parallel dimension.

  1. Rearrange

“So the universe is not quite as you thought it was.

You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can’t rearrange the universe.”

Isaac Asimov

You can’t rearrange someone’s universe. Well. Sometimes you can, not often, but the right product with the right insight can get a person to rearrange their universe. I imagine some people would call these disruptive ideas, I will not. They are simply moments in time in which the is a product insight that aligns with a human insight which rearranges people’s behavioral universe (and even how they make think about themselves in doing so).

This insight is tricky. While this one purposefully taps into the expansiveness of complexity and is a full on “possibilities”/future-looking insight, it can often look quite random. Rearranging often looks random in the moment and, of course, obvious** in hindsight (which makes it difficult to convince people it is meaningful).

** obvious (def.): We neatly arrange things so things seem linear/causal. Taleb (Fooled by Randomness) “regime shift corresponds to situations when all the attributes of a system change to the point of it becoming unrecognizable to the observer – time aggregation eliminates effect of randomness.” Rearranging IS evolution and evolution is asymmetrical. Insights, too often, are presented in symmetrical ways (attempting to make them look obvious or simple), yet, their power is in energizing asymmetry. Ponder that. 


With a ‘re-arranging’ insight you really have two basic choices:

  • Full newness
  • optimal newness

Full newness is always tempting. We like to call these disruptive insights and they just may well be. Just be aware the majority of people do not like to be on the bleeding edge.

Optimal newness is art & science. Too new increases the risk assessment, too grounded it becomes a ‘so what’ insight. To achieve this insight you see a fragmented thought (combination of existing & nonexisting fractals) of which the formula is not formulaic but rather contextual to the opportunity.


Unfortunately, insight seekers must deal with much more complex issues than selecting single variables as “wholisms”. Simplicity and complexity are partners in crime. The world is complex and, yet, to navigate its understanding we need some simplistic lily pads of certainty. Therein lies heuristics and insights.


2. The confusion between complicated and complexity.

Let’s begin here:


Complicated problems originate from causes that can be individually distinguished; they can be address­ed piece by­ piece; for each input to the system there is a proportionate output; the relevant systems can be controlled and the problems they present admit permanent solutions.

On the other hand, complex problems and systems result from networks of multiple interacting causes that cannot be individually distinguished; must be addressed as entire systems, that is they cannot be addressed in a piecemeal way; they are such that small inputs may result in disproportionate effects; the problems they present cannot be solved once and for ever, but require to be systematically managed and typically any intervention merges into new prob­lems as a result of the interventions dealing with them; and the relevant systems cannot be controlled — the best one can do is to influence them, or learn to ‘dance with them’…”

Professor Roberto Poli

Now let’s move to this.


“A complicated system can be reduced down to linear causality between simple components. An experienced expert can usually run a diagnostic to identify and ‘zero-in’ on broken parts, which can then be fixed to make the complicated system function again. Think of this as akin to someone repairing a mechanical watch. Or, if your car breaks down, it is less than helpful for your roadside assistance mechanic to wax philosophical about how the problem is nested within a more complex system. Rather: you want them to use their expertise to diagnose the problem, reduce things down, find the root cause, and fix it. Because in this context, a clear fix is possible.

A complex system, however, cannot be reduced reliably—causality is networked and non-linear, multiple interconnected components interact with each other, with no clearly distinguishable pathways of cause-and-effect. But complex systems can sometimes demonstrate ‘fractal simplicities’—recurring patterns that make a (self-similar) kind of ‘sense’ across different levels of complexity and abstraction. Still, there are no singular root causes for the phenomena that emerges from within a complex system. And thus the challenges complex systems are often wickedly entangled.”

Dr. Jason Fox

Now to this. Complexity is actually good and complicated is bad. Complexity is actually how the world works, it’s a representation of the co-evolution of things. Things beget things. The evolution of the human psyche is always dependent upon the development of its environment – in terms of technology, institutions, ecology, culture, language, the psychological development of others and the relations between them. Complexity is, and will always be, a mixed bag of co-development (an interaction amongst things with rippled consequences begetting new things).

This does not mean a person, a product or an idea/insight CANNOT purposefully reshape the environment (individual and social context) itself but no insight, or idea, lives in isolation – it is co-dependent upon multiple domains. At any given point that you are attempting to ‘rearrange things’ someone and something is also attempting to rearrange things. There are layers upon layers of behavior, attitudes and imperfect people. I could suggest here that in a complexity world everything you do is the Monte Carlo Simulation. Well. It is and it isn’t. As JP Hanson has pointed out a number of times, principles and principled thinking can limit the risk and possible consequences. Taleb calls this “skewed bets.” That said. I’d encourage most insight seekers to think its closer to a Monte Carlo Simulation than a ‘done deal’ locked in outcome*.


*note: Outcome: the good news — the Sinus Milieu and the lock-in principle. It was the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who developed a psychographic method analyzing groups of people called the Sinus Milieu. Basically it is a model that challenges us to think about behavior, preferences and culture. Within the model resides the key point – ‘the lock-in principle.’ The principle simply states that if we get used to something we do not want to change our habits <or attitudes and beliefs> even if we are presented with something new or different that might be better. Simplistically, it consistently shows <to a point that it is almost an unequivocal behavioral truth> that habit, or the current way of doing things, is stronger than the desire for improvement.

3. Confusion between chaos and complexity

“To thrive amidst chaos means to cope or come to grips with it. But that is too reactive an approach and misses the point. The true objective is to take the chaos as given and learn to thrive on it. The winners of tomorrow will deal proactively with chaos, will look at chaos per se as the source of market advantage, not as a problem to get around. Uncertainty and chaos are (will be) market opportunities for the wise.”

Tom Peters, June 1987 “Thriving on Chaos”

Yes. Tom Peters actually explored managing complexity in his 1987 book “Thriving on Chaos.”* And, yes, I actually believe you could call the book “in search of insights.” Everything within the book reflect ways of thinking, principles and navigating the natural flow of a complex business with the intent to find leverage insight opportunities.

I will say that, in general, I believe people who talk about the value of chaos in business and creative process are simply embracing complexity. (note: I have used chaos in narratives because it sounds more impactful than complexity)

** note: Alvin Toffler in Future Shock & The Third Wave, 1970 & 1980 respectively, Peters in 1987 and even The Cluetrain Manifesto 2000 all warned us of the increased complexity of life and business with the advent of mass-technology.

As noted, insights are anything but simple. They are complex, multidimensional with non-linear (unpredictable, only probabilistic) things.

Insight and insights seeking is architectural in nature

Why are insights so important within complexity? Well. Complexity, as part of natural order, does not seek chaos, but actually seeks optimal stability (lily pads of certainty/stability so the ‘gyre not fly off the wheel’). I call this the ‘construct-to-agility* ratio.


*agility is the ability to shift resources to meet needs (reading: The Cactus and the Weasel).

** construct-to-agility ration: optimal certainty in which you find the perfect ratio of stability to freedom/chaos.

*** Note that this is just not a business definition but also an individual behavior definition (time, energy, knowledge, emotion, need, etc).

Suffice it to say that lots of things exist within complexity and people like to swirl around some steady things.

*note: insights can reflect the steady parts or the swirling parts (see ‘seamless, nudge, Rearranging’ explanations).

The way “in” to complexity is to recognize the system and connections. Basically, we need to connect the inner workings of people to structural forces in their world (head, heart, wallet) and the social world (the construct they live within) and see these as an always-ever adapting, to context, interconnectivity.


A final thought on navigating complexity and insights

While understanding what an insight is certainly enhances the likelihood of actually seeing an insight ultimately an insight is, well, nothing unless it is shared with clarity & clarification. Remember. An insight is simply a heuristic for a complex connection point – a description of connectivity. Therefore, it will need some clarification (so that people gain some understand). Which leads me to “definition not details”. Far too often we see details as the path to creating understanding – offer some tangible detail as rationale. In some worlds one could call these “reason to believes.” This is a trap. The best insights DO provide clarity of complexity and detail begins to unravel that clarity creating scenarios in which people will then inevitably hold on to details like buoys in a stormy sea of complexity. Definitions. It is definitions that matter.

Definitions create the platform to what Michelle Holliday describes as “thrivability”:

“thrivability is about identifying and committing to the best means of enhancing life’s ability to thrive. Aligning with life’s core operating patterns across every aspect of the organization.”

** I will appropriate this organizational thinking to insights and suggest an insight aligns with behavioral operating patterns to product/service offering **

This may sound nebulous, but insights are not a means to an end, they are actually about releasing (complexity) and opening up behavior, in other words, thrivability.

Just ponder.

Let me end with intentions.

Strategy, strategic insights and “insight hunting” for the most part is a road paved with good intentions.

Intention 1: reduce cognitive load. I don’t care if you work with concrete, software , nano-anything, insights are made (uncovered) by and for humans. Therefore, inherent to any good insight is the reduction of cognitive load (once it is understood and accommodated within attitudes/behavior). People make 1000’s of decisions daily (35,000 I believe) and an insight should not add to decisions but rather subtract from decision making. That is an intent not always realized but the pursuit is of value.

Intention 2: a relentless pursuit of clarity to provide certainty to others – in other words – a solid place from which others can launch some thinking, behavior, ‘doing’, whatever.

Therein also lies its greatest challenge. In a complex world true ‘solid’ is often fleeting and one can quite easily offer some misguided hope, or belief, that this answer is a panacea for uncertainty in a complex world. I have found this piece from Sonja Blignaught, “7 lessons I’ve learned consulting as a complexity practitioner” as a helpful guide with regard to intent and articulation.

In the end (part a).

In general, the reality is we should seek to work WITH complexity not kill it (because it actually maximizes future and present potential). Specifically, with regard to insights, an insight should release something within complexity – a vivid improvement or vivid feeling. Yes. It could be simplicity (or the trappings of ‘simpler’) but that is simply a means to an end. Maybe we should be judging insights not on simplicity but rather outcome/effect/affectation. In other words, how does it expand possibilities within a complex world for someone? This may feel counterintuitive but I would argue this is simply a different articulation of benefit or “makings someone’s life better.”

In the end (part b).

Be intent. Be intent on embracing complexity and be intent on articulating complexity. I will note that because Complexity is expansive embracing Complexity is not for the faint of heart. Some people shrink from its immensity and other find riches within its immensity – especially the insight seekers.

Some final insight seeker advice.

I do not agree nor believe we need to use some business jargon or bullshit soundbites in order to create salience especially with regard to insight articulation. In fact, I find it counterproductive and even dangerous to what is most important – the idea itself.

Thinking, thought making, and especially insights, demands lack of bullshit. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be utilizing any and all of the thinking behind all the bullshit words & fortune cookie wisdom memes. We should be the ones embracing the complexity and rejecting the simplicity. If not us, who?

To conclude.

If I were to treat this long stream of consciousness post as an outline for a book, there remain many unanswered questions and several open ended thoughts to explore in its chapters:

the physics of insights: if insights inherently expand space, is space infinite? (exploration aligned with ‘as galaxies expand and increase space between the universal space expands infinitely’)

the psychology of insights: if the best insights, in essence, encapsulate a finite decision yet its power is releasing the infinite possibilities, how does the human mind grasp this? (exploration of Carse’s Infinite Game)

do fractals have codes: the neuroscience of insights (exploration of Barden’s Decoded)

the relationship between insights and progress: is progress, or even a Quest, simply coherent fractals? (exploration of Fox’s How to Lead a Quest)

fractal semiotics: the language of insights (exploration of Petkova’s Brave New Text

the philosophy of insights: does everything have an insight? does something have to have an insight to exist?

Maybe there are more questions than answers. As it should be I imagine.


About the piece:

While I have written a number of pieces about the ‘complexity of simplicity’ and insights it was Dr. Jason Fox and this thought that made me sit down and write:

Maybe there’s a part of me that bemoans the fact that so many folks seem to yearn for simple ‘solutions’ whilst in denial of complexity. The result instead is that we end up treating complex systems as complicated—and thus our ‘solutions’ are reactive, short-sighted, simplistic (not simple) and liable to perpetuate the deeper issues at play.

If you have people in your organisation: it’s complex.

Because we—you and I, each and every one of us—are infinitely complex. We are not merely individual cogs in a machine (though classic and conventional approaches to management might have you believe otherwise, thus dehumanising). And while we must of course work to remove unnecessary complications in our systems of work, we must do so knowing that this complicated system sits within much more complex contexts.


And almost exactly the same time a tweet from Tom Goodwin crossed my thread saying “not everything has an insight” (with regard to advertising). I knew I disagreed, but had never articulated why I disagreed.

Bruce McTague

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Written by Bruce