simplicity, complexity and cognitive interest


“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Frédéric Chopin


I’ll admit. I hate discussions about simplicity mostly because the majority of people:

(a) dumb the conversation down to such a simplistic level it is meaningless, or/and

(b) do not really understand what simple is

Simplicity has become stupid. I believe the business world would be a much better place if we discussed providing clarity on the complex. Of course to do this everyone would have to admit the norm is complex and business, itself, is complexity used well. If you do agree with that, than simplicity is complexity explained well.

Anyway. Discussing what is simple, and what is simplicity, maybe one of the most complex and complicated topics you will ever discuss.

It gets confusing because, well, people confuse stimulus and response. Simplicity is not actually achieved in the stimulus or even in the delivery, but rather in the response.

Now. That doesn’t mean a ‘simple’ stimulus is unable to generate a simple response. In fact it may more often than not. Uhm. “May”. Simple stimuli are just as likely to confuse. Provide ambiguity. Generate a feeling of ‘less than.’ In other words, they simply communicate nothing. So when someone says ‘show a picture’ or ‘say it in 5 seconds or you lose them’ and be done with it I just don’t think it is that simple.

That is simply looking at it from a stimulus point of view.

Now. That’s not a bad place to start, but it is a means to an end. Far too often we look at that as the answer when the reality is simplicity can be delivered in so many ways your head will spin.

Chopin got it right. He wrote music which could often be complex and intertwined with nuance, but simplicity was achieved in the final achievement.

** note: in my opinion simplicity in outcome/achievement is not actually found in creating a simple stimulus but rather about writing, or creating, from the edge. Let me explain. Writing things from the edges has nothing to do with danger or risk taking or even ‘living on the edge’ type perceptions everyone seems to have. The edge is simply less cluttered and less cluttered, cognitively & within a stimulus, is where simplicity resides. So my suggestion is to just move your ass closer to an edge because it is simply clearer there.

“When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?”
John Maynard Keynes

The final achievement means, cognitively, the stimulus has connected in some way. Despite the fact you can have experts lining up to tell you all about what simplicity is and how to cognitively engage, there really is no formula for simplicity. Its not about ‘less is more’ or any other trite advice. Inevitably, it is just the right amount of stimulus to engage cognitively. Sure. There are tricks and well-researched methodologies to increase the probability of cognitive connection but none of those tricks are some simplistic ‘simple’ but rather a somewhat complex framework within which one can make its cognitive attempt.

I began with a Chopin quote because his music was complex and sometimes complicated. And, yet, people sit and listen for minutes on end and say afterwards: “that was simply beautiful.”

In other words. Simplicity is not defined in how you say or communicate something, but rather how it is accepted.

Now. Simplicity and complexity reside in an uneasy marriage. I see complexity as the universe and chaos & simplicity roam around within (as do liminal structure & complications – which is when components of complexity are dysfunctional). But they are married within what is called direct versus systemic causation.


Direct vs. Systemic Causation

Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation. Systemic causation has four versions: A chain of direct causes. Interacting direct causes (or chains of direct causes). Feedback loops. And probabilistic causes. Systemic causation in global warming explains why global warming over the Pacific can produce huge snowstorms in Washington DC: masses of highly energized water molecules evaporate over the Pacific, blow to the Northeast and over the North Pole and come down in winter over the East coast and parts of the Midwest as masses of snow. Systemic causation has chains of direct causes, interacting causes, feedback loops, and probabilistic causes — often combined.

Direct causation is easy to understand, and appears to be represented in the grammars of all languages around the world. Systemic causation is more complex and is not represented in the grammar of any language. It just has to be learned.

Business is much much more comfortable with direct causation and this bleeds into the entire simplicity conversation. Business intensely focuses on simple execution believing it will create simple (understood) responses. Unfortunately for businesses, most of what exists within a complex system is systemic causation. But, once again, the knee jerk response to even understanding systemic causation is to seek to control it – through simplicity.

This belief centers around the flawed belief that the whole thrives on complexity while the parts thrive on the underlying simplicity of details.

I am certainly not suggesting details aren’t important and that simplicity, when applied to details, can’t enhance execution. But I am suggesting blindly following this belief almost dooms an organization to misunderstanding, confusion or lack of any understanding.

Circling back to my main argument against simplicity I would suggest that the objective leads people astray and makes success fleeting.

The objective should not be simplicity but rather “complexity explained well.”  

Complexity is reality and reality, and the understanding thereof, increases likelihood of reaching an objective, properly doing a task and the ability to adapt to shifting contexts.

In other words. Complexity explained well actually brings in the pragmatism of reality and, I would argue, effectiveness.


All this means is that simplicity is rarely simple and trying to capture an important idea or thought in a meaningful single word is not only silly, but sells the depth & breadth of a decision or situation short. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek simplicity but it is possible we should be seeking clarity and brevity instead. Simple or simplicity shouldn’t be defined by rules or milestones or trite “say it in 10 seconds or less” dictates or, well, any boundaries. The only real boundary is understanding – say enough to be understood and not too much to be wasteful or complicated. Why? Beacuse Simplicity is reflective of context WITHIN complexity: the time, place, people, situation and solution needed.

In other words, simplicity IS the complexity.

Simplicity is the watchword of the day. But we don’t want to give up our freedom to choose — we want options, we want products and services that fit our individual circumstances.   All those choices give us the antithesis of simplicity: they give us complexity. So how do we get simplicity without giving up choice?  We need simplicity and complexity together, we need simple complexity.  What we want is SIMPLEXITY.


Simplexity is actually a term used in the mathematics of complexity theory. A woman named Susan Abbott hijacked it for the Marketing and Customer Experience world. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, authors of The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World, came up with the term in this context.

Simplexity. I hate jargon & buzzwords but maybe I end here because ‘simplexity’ is a silly simple way to say “complexity explained well.”

Let me end with this thought.

There is a belief that simplicity sells, but you need complexity to scale. This is wrong. Clarity of complexity sells value and permits you to scale WITH value — value sells and scales.

Simplicity’s role, philosophically, is that it links any business success discussion to a whole OR parts discussion. Business success, and communication success I imagine, is inevitably grounded in the grind, the confident steps taken in the interest of progress and actual “doing-type stuff.”

In the absence of anything else, shit still needs to be done. And each part needs to be done well without sacrificing the wellness of the whole. The business world, and businesses in general, is ever increasingly interconnected <internally & externally> and ignoring that, simply thinking that if my part does my part well that the whole will succeed is absolutely and completely flawed thinking. In fact. It is a simplistic wrong way of thinking.

The parts are always, always, connected in some way with the greater whole. And this is where simplicity thrives, not in the understanding, but in the execution – in understanding the parts and, specifically, your part. This is important. Really important. Complexity is expansive and always expanding (when done well). In fact in its expansiveness it can get a little overwhelming in the grind life, so, you offer some simplicity within the grind so everyone can get a little grip on the grander complexity. Maybe what I am suggesting is, well, its not simple this whole “complexity explained well” thing. To one person the part is important and to another person the whole is important and within their complex universe understanding has to be simple enough progress can continue.

** note: this may seem like its focused on organizational behavior but I encourage everyone, even communications professionals, to ponder this thought for their business

Written by Bruce