Have you ever come across a solution or innovation that seems so obvious you want to kick yourself for not thinking of it first? An answer that at surface level feels simple, yet is so perfectly suited to overcoming the challenge at hand, you marvel at how it could have – until now – been overlooked? Conversely, have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation filled with reams of data and intricately designed infographics only to feel more confused and further away from a solution than you were before?
In the world of brand and business consulting, we’re often exposed to these two sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, though, it feels like the latter more frequently wins the toss. Again and again, the convoluted is chosen over the straightforward. The complex is favored to the simple.
The complexity bias
But it isn’t just us brand consultants who are guilty of constructing Rube Goldberg machines to solve business problems for our clients. Behavioral economists posit that it’s actually human tendency to choose the complex over the simple and that this complexity bias means we’re psychologically wired to, when faced with two competing hypotheses, choose the more intricate one.
Why, though, does this bias exist when it seems to go against our better logic? Well, like other biases, the complexity bias exists to save mental energy. It’s a truth Mark Twain identified when he wrote, “I apologize for such a long letter. I didn’t have time for a short one”: put simply, simplifying takes effort.
In fact, a recent study conducted by researchers at UVA showed that as humans, we prefer additive (more complex) solutions to subtractive (simpler) ones. Across a range of studies where participants were asked to improve everything form Lego structures, to essays, to itineraries, far fewer chose to subtract elements than to add. This preference to add might even explain why most of us learned to ride a bicycle on a tricycle or a bike with training wheels, while many parents today are opting to teach their kids on the newly popularized balance bike – a pedal-less two-wheeler that helps children to develop their biking skills through a simplified learning process and with a more elegant design.
Dangers of complexity
When it’s about bikes and Legos, it may seem like the complexity bias is all fun and games. Unfortunately, there are real-world consequences. Aside from overlooking the best answer, this preference can also lead people to believe in superstition and conspiracy theories. (And in a country where 50% of the population believes in at least one conspiracy theory, you can see how this poses a major problem.) Additionally, it can lead to misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. Jargon and overly complex language afflict everything from political debates to boardrooms to health claims on cereal boxes.
Pursuing the simple
So, if this complexity bias is so detrimental to problem-solving and communication, then how can we avoid it? Well, at Joe Smith, we often talk about Strategic Rigor and the importance of understanding the root of a problem, not just its symptoms. And while it may sound counter-intuitive, it’s this upfront digging into the complexities of a challenge that can – hopefully – lead to a simpler solution. (For example, on a recent Medtronic project we determined the medical device company didn’t necessarily need a rebrand, as originally asked, but a much simpler solution. Read on to learn more here.)
To sum it up, our minds perceive overcomplicated solutions as very tempting shortcuts, but when faced at that crossroads, we must ignore the seductive sirens of complexity to seek the simple, albeit longer, path forward.
To avoid the pitfalls of complexity on your next project, we recommend asking yourself:
- Is the level of complexity I’m chasing adding to the experience, or overcomplicating it?
- What can I remove without undermining the essence of my solution?
- Is complexity in this case a feature or a bug?
- And what is the bigger problem I’m solving for?
When we put in the hard work essential to seeking the simple, question the core assumptions, and keep an open mind, this rigorous path pressure tests the solutions at which we arrive... Even if upon arrival, we find ourselves back at the beginning with a solution that leaves us saying, “No Duh.”