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Why "Simplifying" Complex Problems is Actually a Bad Idea

It’s in our nature to try and understand complex problems by attempting to simplify them. But if a problem can be simplified, was it really a complex problem to begin with?

Designers and engineers alike love solving problems. It’s what keeps us going. In fact, I’d say that the sole reason we’re doing our jobs, is because we want to find and solve interesting problems.

What do we do when we encounter a complex issue? We attempt to “simplify”, by making it easier to understand. But when a problem can be simplified, was it complex to begin with?

It dawned on me last week that what we really call “simplification” can be summed up in two approaches:

1. Acknowledge the complexity of a problem and focus on expanding its understanding.

2. Ignore the complexity of a problem in an attempt to make it simpler.

When you have ten ideas that all look very similar (or slightly overlap), it makes sense to turn them into five ideas, in an attempt to capture the essence of the original ten, just so we wouldn’t have to deal with seemingly superfluous options.

**But this is a trap.** We subconsciously seek the shortest path from point A to B, disregarding the reality of our journey. The shortest way will in this case be neither more efficient (an uphill hike), nor quicker (slow on approach), because we’ve denied the complexity of our problem. It’s still there, it’s still complex, it’s still nuanced.

But we chose to ignore it all.

The way out of this, is to acknowledge a complex problem as-is: the reality is we can’t tackle 10 competing ideas, and we can’t simplify them because we’ll loose all nuance.

What we can and should do is to apply selective focus. Pick three ideas, then figure out a solution to tackle them elegantly.

It will require more time and effort, for sure, but if you’re still standing after those three, you’ll be in a much better position than someone who took the shortcut and is lost in the wilderness.

Do not be afraid to focus. It might seem counter intuitive, given the complexity of a problem, but remember that no one said problem solving would be easy.

Keep doing great things!