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When the Road Map is more Complex than the Terrain March 2, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, books, change, function, questions, technology.
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Simplicity is a myth whose time has passed, if it ever existed. – Donald Norman

We’re grappling as an industry with larger and more complex projects and work processes.

As are our teams and work flows.

Our construction document sets have over time become obese.

The world is becoming more maze-like every day and so, in an effort to address the compounding (and confounding) complexity, our tools become more complex.

It’s as though complexity begets complexity.

But like fighting fire with fire, must we address our complex problems with equally complex tools, processes and solutions?

As I write, the states of Florida and Texas are burning.

Thankfully, nobody is suggesting using fire to squelch the flames.

It’s a saying, thanks to Shakespeare, that means to match the solution to the problem.

Architects may be able to see the big picture and think in terms of detail simultaneously, but how about on complex projects?

Are there another set of tools and abilities – such as those of the conductor, arranger or orchestrator – we need to turn to?

How much sense does it make to use extremely complex tools to solve complex problems?

More importantly, in these digitally sophisticated times;

How much sense does it make to use extremely complex tools to solve relatively simple problems?

That is a question I posed the other week in the form of a metaphor.

At a recent Lean Construction event where a talented designer had presented his technically sophisticated building design with a fairly simple program, I asked:

Can the road map be more complex than the terrain?

From the audience’s complicit silence one suspected they were thinking the same thing.

(Click on image above to witness beauty in complexity.)

Much of our design work – in an effort to make a statement – errs on the side of complexity-for-complexity’s sake.

Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t it be simpler?

What we really mean when we have these thoughts is:

Why can’t it acknowledge people? Why can’t it admit me?

Why must it aim for popularity or posterity into perpetuity on sites such as this or this? 

Why do we as designers make projects harder than they need to be?

As designers, despite our good intentions, we sometimes trip ourselves up by making things more difficult than they are.

Why we do it

We do it for any number of reasons, not all of them rational:

1. We do it because we feel we need to do so in order to innovate and move the design ball forward.

2. We also do it because we can.

  1. 3. We do it because we mistakenly equate complexity with sophistication.

4. We do it because we’re afraid if we didn’t there would only be silence – like tumbleweeds – on the other side.

5. We’re do it because we’re afraid that, without our intervening, our projects won’t speak; they’ll lack meaning and even purpose.

6. We do it because we’re exercising our designer muscle and in doing so, keeping our designer cred fit and alive.

Our world is already too complex – we would do well by not creating more than is necessary.

In this sense I’m suggesting a form of voluntary simplicity.

There is no question that architects need to develop new abilities to address the increasing scale and complexity of projects and work processes.

Why can’t these skill-sets be simple ones?

Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, in his excellent new book Living with Complexity, sees complexity not as a problem but as an opportunity.

While many of us feel like we’re bombarded by too much information, we can ironically benefit by seeking information by hearing what others have to say about their experiences dealing with complex systems.

How do we deal with complexity in our world and in our work?

One way is to tap into our networks.

Simple Resources for Dealing with Complexity

A good place to start is by joining, observing and participating in any one of the complexity-related groups that can be found on social networks such as these on LinkedIn:

Systems Thinking is a group for systems thinking and organizational transformation practitioners to build links and experience. One of the very best groups on LinkedIn.

Systems Thinking World‘s purpose is to create content which furthers understanding of the value of a systemic perspective and enables thinking and acting systemically.

Complexity goes beyond today’s solutions.

And there are other related LinkedIn groups and subgroups: Complexity Science is a network connecting scientists dealing with complex systems; Systems Thinking & System Dynamics is an international, nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the development and use of systems thinking and system dynamics around the world; Complex Adaptive Systems group is about Complex Adaptive Systems theory applying to social sciences, aiming to bring professionals and academics together, and Systems Thinking for Managers is a networking opportunity for people interested in radical effectiveness and efficiency improvements in private and public sectors.

Some great blogs on complexity here, here, here and here

Some great books on complexity here,  here,  here and here

&

One brilliant book on (myth or not) simplicity here.

Now it’s your turn: Do you believe it is possible to successfully address complex problems – such as those brought about by working on large-scaled projects – with simple means and solutions? How so?

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Comments»

1. Ted Pratt - March 4, 2011

Randy thanks for another great post. I really appreciate your metaphor. It does seem that so much of the design work presented as clever, sophisticated and/or important is of a complex nature. But not all I would opine. Take John Pawson’s Novy Dvur Monastery for example. Complex program, seemingly simple straight forward solution. There is complexity in the solution but it is not apparent to the casual viewer.

I find that I am driven to this design approach as our world becomes more complex. In my recent work of the say last six years I’ve noticed a strong impulse to strip away all the nonessential elements/flourishes. I’ve also notice a strong impulse toward metaphor as the generator of design concept.

As an investigator of the complex nature of information and our processing of it, I believe my desire to simplify is a way of providing others refuge from the complexity of the world.

I look forward to reading more on this topic and thanks for the great references you posted.


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