Simplicity vs Complexity

Photo by Aditya Wardhana on Unsplash

We are of two minds: Simplicity versus Complexity. We observe the tension between them everywhere. It is present in music, architecture, art, design, and even computer programming. Think of the vast variety of options available at the store: the varied type, sizes, features, or flavors of items available for a simple bar of soap or loaf of bread. How to choose?

Tension is often seen as negative. However, it can be both positive and necessary. The continuous movement between simplicity and complexity is a rhythm of life. The move toward complexity begins with conception: one cell becomes two, two becomes four… eventually the brain of a newborn has 100 billion neurons. At adolescence, a type of simplification called synaptic pruning begins that sorts and makes room for the integration and efficiency of an adult brain with 500 billion neurons. This renovating of the brain continues throughout life. This mental ability to change and adapt is called neuroplasticity.

In the same way, complexity comes upon us gradually in our lives as we create and work to solve problems. The solutions are good, but unchecked complexity hampers further growth. A simpler idea is often required to prune the unproductive complexity vines and regain the focus of what really matters.


Simplicity draws us with its benefits, such as regaining focus on priorities, clarifying by shutting out distractions, and allowing us to accomplish more with less stress. Sometimes simpler is just easier too!

The benefits of complexity also attract us with promises of efficiencies, improvements in products or processes and increasing value. We can see that the vast amount of information available online makes learning more accessible. Technology enables faster communication and greater accuracy. Medical advancements improve both our health and our quality of life, while the myriad of appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines and Roombas, take care of mundane tasks. Our complex society can do things that previous generations could only dream of! Think of the 1.2 million terabytes of data accessible from Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. The smart phones in our pockets have more processing power than the computers used to send astronauts to the moon.

Nature appears simple. It is energy efficient in its processes; nothing is wasted. Take the leaves on trees as an example. They grow and nourish the tree in season, then fall off and decompose giving nutrition back to the roots of the tree, which in turn allows it to grow more leaves. The water cycle is another example. Water falls to the earth in the form of snow and rain. As it runs off the surface it nourishes plants, eventually reaching creeks, rivers and finally the ocean. There it evaporates again into its purest form to begin again as precipitation.

Basic human needs are air, water, food, sleep, safety, love, and stimulation. To modern eyes, work before the invention of electric lights appears simpler. Tasks began at sunrise. At sunset the work halted, and as darkness fell, sleep was a natural response to the fatigue of the day’s efforts.

While life often appears simple, it requires engagement with the complex. The brain is complicated with its billions of neurons. Just like the brain, the entire body is composed of smaller cell units, together creating larger organs and tissues governed through various sub-systems. These systems are in turn affected by sensory input and hormones, intake of energy and excretion of waste. This internal equilibrium with all systems adjusting to maintain stability is often called homeostasis. This fragile balance is easily disrupted by illness.

Additional layers of complexity are created as we interact with others and through our desire to make and improve things. While the human need for relationships appears basic, experience quickly teaches us those human interactions are not simple. Our friendships, sibling rivalries, in-laws, family dynamics, and love are often fraught with misunderstandings and loaded with emotion which complicate matters. Efforts to reduce misunderstandings and tensions in relationships introduce new complexities in society in the form of accommodations and compromise. For example, multi-culturalism legislated through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows immigrants to preserve their culture and participate in society, sometimes at the expense of unity. Greater accommodations are required for so many different views. Tolerance of alternatives is insufficient, as minorities desire both acceptance and understanding.

Work is affected by the number of tasks, the level of difficulty, time required to complete, plus any unanticipated obstacles. In addition, there are also the interactions between co-workers and managers. Even belief in a Creator, which seems like a simple concept, is complicated by theology, morals and ethics. Faith shapes worldview and profoundly impacts all aspects of life. As complicated as that all is, there is the thread of simplicity too…humans have basic needs for relationships, for belonging, to be fully known. Thus, the pendulum continues to swing between simplicity and complexity.


Seeking solace in simplicity when overwhelmed by the complexity around us is understandable, but there are risks in letting the pendulum swing too far.

By ignoring details containing valuable information about a situation, simplifying may create additional problems. It may also result in lost opportunities to find improvements. A deeper understanding of the details of any situation leads to a more appropriate solution.

Over-simplifying is often seen in the “black and white” approach which media sometimes takes when reporting on issues. This also occurs in the short-term “band aid” solutions sometimes proposed by government for problems which require a longer perspective than a 4-year elected term. Short term management approaches can create a similar situation in long term intergenerational companies.

Nostalgia regarding the past is a common human experience. It is a way of validating our method of decision-making used in the past. An efficient self-defence mechanism, it combines various positive memories and filters out negative ones. This helps us cope with the tension changes bring, provides meaning and comfort by increasing our connectedness with the past and who we are, and offers a sense of continuity of ourselves moving through time.

Our digital society changes so rapidly that the computer bought last month is already out of date. It is hard to keep up. No wonder many feel nostalgia for the perceived simplicity of previous generations.

However, the past was not as simple as we tend to believe. Anthropologists confirm that ancient Maya, Inca, and West African tribes were both non-literate and remarkably complex. Traditional societies of the past would have argued that their lives were equal to, or even harder, than ours because they had to grow their own food, make their own soap, sew their own clothes and all with no insurance for losses they encountered along the way.

Simpler is not necessarily easier. While previous generations did have simpler governments and economies based on traditional industry, they had significant challenges. How about Imperial Munitions Board controlling 600 munitions factories across Canada through World War I without the ease of modern communication? What about the 1920’s era neurosurgeon who required 4 full-time secretaries to keep his work organized?

While nostalgia serves a purpose, life must be lived in the present, recognizing the value of both simplicity and complexity.

While surrounded by simplicity and complexity and the tension they create, we accept that neither are negative. Both have benefits and are necessary in the rhythm of life. The challenge is to achieve the internal stability of homeostasis, or equilibrium, when responding to challenges.

Occam’s Razor

The desire for balance is not a recent idea. The Rule of Occam’s Razor is used for problem-solving when there are competing hypotheses about the same prediction. It prefers the simplest solution, or the one with the fewest assumptions, over the more complex. While William Occam (1287-1347) did not invent the principle, it is named for him because of his passion for its use. It became known by its modern name in 1852, during a nostalgic, “simpler” era!

Simpler is not always right

While the simpler explanation is often more appealing given the complexity of issues in our world, it might not always be the right one. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein says, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Join us in Part 2 to explore implications in an organizational setting, Part 3 to explore multi-tasking and helpful time management tools for individual effectiveness, and Part 4 to explore anchoring ourselves in the presence of this tension.