The psychology of simplicity: Just why do we make things complex?
Because it’s in our nature.
Humans are successful because of our creativity and our natural desire to progress and survive. This means that we just can’t resist improving ourselves and improving our surroundings. Even if this progress might eventually do more harm than good.
Add to this the collective effects of others seeking personal progress, we can soon see why organisations quickly become highly complex systems.
Complexity increases, largely unconsciously, as we seek to improve, to learn, to progress and to satisfy our own needs. Our desire for better and our desire for more means we cannot help but make things more complicated.
A look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps illustrate the point.
Figure 1: Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs
- Security of employment: In an increasing VUCA world, employment tenures can feel less secure. To survive, people feel they need to show they are doing lots of great things. So, people look for more projects and more initiatives that prove their worth to their organisation. Particularly to those who decide their pay and progression. Some of these activities and initiatives may be great, but just as many create complexity without adding proportionate value.
- Anxiety: In a similar way, as we get anxious about our chances of survival, we create processes, barriers and systems to protect us. We’ll hide behind complexity. Perhaps there’s comfort in creating a complexity screen of reality?
- Self-esteem, confidence and respect from others: By doing clever things and achieving great results, people gain the respect and recognition of others. This makes people feel better about themselves. In searching for self-esteem and recognition by others, people are driven to look for new, better and smarter ways of doing things. Again, this can often lead to unnecessary complexity.
- Creativity: Humans are creative. We love to invent. This means people will take something that works well and try to improve it, even if it doesn’t need improving. Sometimes things are best left alone or cut down. We can all relate to a product or service which we preferred the old way. The new LinkedIn platform, anyone? But sticking with something which already works great goes against people’s creative nature.
- Problem-solving: People find it intellectually stimulating and challenging to solve difficult problems and master complex subjects that others find difficult. As people seek to understand and experiment with new ways of doing things, complexity can be created.
Takeaway: Because they are intangible and innate, these human needs are difficult to address. It’s hard to see self-esteem, safety and self-actualisation on people’s faces.
The visible symptoms of complexity created by basic human needs can be seen in organisations as daily habits and behaviours. We provided some examples of these in this earlier article – 8 behavioural indicators of everyday complexity.