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Learning to See Complexity

March 1, 2017

Design Integrity and FunctionLook and See:

A habit I’m trying to develop comes from my new hobby—photography. That habit is try and “see” opportunities for an interesting picture. Along with that comes the companion habit of not only looking ahead or to the side, but to turn around and look behind me and up as well as down. It amazes me how much I miss when I’m not paying attention. Sometimes I miss a wonderfully simple scene and other times I miss interesting complexity in a scene.

Take the image above. I was at a venue new to me and marveled at it’s beautiful interior decor. I remembered to look up and spotted the intricate steel work of the skylight over the atrium.

First Impression

My first thoughts were, “Wow! What an interesting picture that would make with all the angles and patterns of the steel frame.” The complexity of the pattern caught my eye, and then I focused (all puns intended) on getting the best angle and exposures for the picture. I took many shots, of course, and in the post processing, chose this particular image.

While I was lining up the different shots from various angles, my mind went to other thoughts about the structure. Why such complexity? Was it all necessary or did some structural engineer make the geometric design as much for aesthetics as functional integrity? Is this the natural result of the necessary design for this particular three dimensional space? If I gave the requirements to a group of structural engineering students, would they come up with similar designs?

Second Impression

I have the great fortune to work with two companies that have helped me “see” deeper into these questions. One company is a civil engineering company that specializes in structural design. The second is an architectural firm that designs interiors for offices and industrial/retail spaces. The two companies often go through immense complexities to arrive at what seems to clients as a simple and elegant design.

As I studied the overhead structure, I became more impressed with not only the intricacy and beauty of the design but the functionality as well. It certainly maximized the natural light coming into the atrium space. The design fulfilled the requirement of structural support. I assume that there is very little superfluous structure. So my second impression was one of structural integrity. As the architectural firm likes to say, “Looks Great. Works Great.”

Figs, Complexity and Leadership

Complexity CurveOne of the issues I’m finding with my new hobby is that with the advent of digital photography, we take lots and lots of images! They don’t seem to cost anything compared with the old film process I grew up with. They do, however, cost time. Often, lots of time!

In the post processing of the atrium image above, I again thought about how intricate and visually pleasing the design is. It reminded me of the quotation I have put into the Complexity Curve Image to the right (one of my very favorite quotes). I believe that one of our principle tasks as leaders is to identify the complexities of our environments. We often dismiss them or perhaps do not even see the complexities. Once we discover or re-discover complexity, we then need to walk ourselves and our teams through detailed analysis to get to the other side, where we can restate the challenge in simpler terms.

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”— Bertrand Russell

The fools and fanatics Bertrand Russell refers to inhabit the left-hand side of the complexity curve. The wiser people, those who truly know the complex system, are plagued with doubts about what may have changed. This group lives on the right-hand side of the curve. They know that unintended consequences are to be expected.

I now make it a practice to try to determine on which side of the complexity curve someone is when they make a declaration about a situation, problem or stereotype. One test might be to see if they can accurately state the opposing side’s view of whatever challenge they are facing. If they can’t, they are on the wrong side of the curve.


Leaders often depend on experts. Those experts may be contractors, employees and/or colleagues. What determines an expert? To my way of thinking, it is someone who has been through a very complex issue, thought deeply about it, and can now explain it to me in simple terms that I can understand. They can also take me through the complex situation if need be. And I know they are able to explain opposing views because they often have to do that to show that they have indeed thought everything through.

What side of the curve are you on for those significant leadership issues you face? Have you seen the whole complex system and not just parts of it? Can you boil down the complex, interdependent system to everyday language that others can understand? Can you honestly, accurately and with supporting data state the opposition’s case? The great leaders I have met can do those things. They dwell on the right-hand side of the complexity curve.


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