By Gordon Rugg
The simplicity beyond complexity is a concept attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It appears in at least a couple of forms, as described below.
“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” This quote, which on the Holmes Sr page has “my right arm” instead of “my life,” is one for which I haven’t found the source so far, and so I will leave this quote as it is on both pages. – InvisibleSun 18:05, 10 October 2006 (UTC)
It’s interpreted in at least a couple of ways.
One way, which I won’t go into here, is about working out how to solve a problem, and then hiding the complexity of the solution from the user, so that the product is simple to use.
The other way, which I will go into below, is about why apparently sensible simple explanations often don’t work, and about why there’s often a different but better simple explanation that only emerges after a lot of complexity, confusion and investigation.
A common criticism of academic writing is that it’s just dressing up a simple idea in complicated words. At one level, that’s quite often a sort-of fair criticism. However, that criticism is usually followed by a statement of what the simple idea actually is, where the simple idea is simply wrong. This is the point where academics tend to point out why the simple idea is wrong, and the critic responds forcefully, and everything descends into heat and noise, with very little light being shed on what the real answer should be.
So, what’s going on?
What often happens is as follows. For standard everyday situations, there’s a simple explanation that works well enough, or at least appears to work well enough. So far, so good.
However, when a non-standard situation occurs, that simple explanation often falls apart very rapidly. One common response is to keep doing the same thing, only harder. That seldom ends well.
Usually, understanding the non-standard situation turns out to be complex, messy, and unpredictable as regards where that understanding takes you. Eventually, if all goes well, you get an answer, and it’s a raw, unpolished, complicated answer. You can now do two things with that answer.
One is to write it up in all its full, complex, messy glory, so that anyone who wants to properly understand what’s going on can see the complete answer. That’s what academic writing and technical writing are about.
The other thing you can do with the answer is to work out how to simplify it enough for anyone to understand and use. That takes time, effort, and a specialist skill set. All those commodities are rare. Also, at the end of the process, the new answer often looks so simple that people to treat it as self-evident, and to wonder why anyone would bother to make a big deal of it in the first place.
An example of this process is finding a client’s requirements. At first sight, this looks simple: You just interview them, and ask them to list their requirements.
However, this simply doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t work very well even when the client’s life literally depends on the requirements being complete and correct, as in the case of aircraft pilots giving requirements for flight control systems.
Understanding and solving this problem led to an entire discipline emerging, namely requirements engineering. This drew on a wide range of fields, from anthropology to neuropsychology and to mathematics. When Neil Maiden and I pulled the answers together into what we called the ACRE framework, the framework had several facets, and included about a dozen types of memory, skill and communication. It wasn’t exactly user-friendly for anyone except academic specialists.
However, it was possible to distil that framework down to four simple concepts that covered enough of the complexity for most purposes. The four concepts are: Do, don’t, can’t, won’t.
In brief, if you’re trying to extract information from a human being, there are four main categories:
- Do: What they do tell you
- Don’t: What they would be willing and able to tell you, but happen not to tell you, for various reasons
- Can’t: When they can’t put their knowledge into words even though they want to (e.g. a skilled driver trying to tell a novice how to change gear)
- Won’t: What they are unwilling to tell you, for various reasons
It’s short, it’s simple, and it’s good enough for most purposes. However, it’s a different simple answer from the one that we started with, and it’s not quite as simple as the one we started with. The simplicity beyond complexity is often like that.
So, that’s the simplicity beyond complexity. It’s a really useful concept, and it’s something worth striving for.
Notes and links
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There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:
Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
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