Preparing for the Podcast “Making Complexity Simple”

After an exchange on Twitter with Kevin Richard about complexity, how to face it, how to manage it, and how to communicate it, I had a deep, improvised, and intense online conversation with Kevin.
We’ve spoken as we’re being friends for 20 years. We went into the weeds of an intense conversation about the topics that we love to discuss on our own blogs and online circles.

It was natural to think about doing something more, together. So Kevin invited me to his podcast, to talk about the same topics. This time, we would record a podcast episode.

Excited about the possibility I did what I usually do when stars collide: I tried to put my thoughts together on the topics which have been on my list for a long time, now. What do I know about Systems Thinking, Critical Thinking, Design, Management, Leadership, Communication? Not a Ph.D., for sure, but I’ve thinking, writing and trying to apply them, in one way or the other in everything I do.

Let’s talk to me

I went to the place I like to go frequently: my mind. And I did what it became natural to me when I need to think: I wrote. Or, better, I talked. I recorded some drafts, impromptu conversations about those topics in a smooth and seamless way. I went into the flow of expressing what interests me, what I feel, and, most of all, what questions I have still unturned. I did transcribe my notes, yes, they went into my journal. But I did not reread them, nor I’ve added them to my Zettelkasten. It was a needed exercise to remove the pressure of thinking too much privately and expressing it too little with words, which somebody can hear.

You cannot contain complexity

That’s when I had the first symptoms of the phenomenon we’re talking about. You cannot contain complexity in straight talk. You cannot express it fully and make it clear, just because you take all the time to put your thoughts in line. And this was the taste I would have been supposed to feel during the podcast. This is talking about complexity, you cannot use it up, you cannot exhaust it. And that’s what gives me thrills of joy and fear. That’s my element. That’s what I need to explore. That’s what I don’t know.

Let’s talk to the Collective Mind, Then

Not happy, and really busy with work and life, I let my diffuse brain cogitate on it, in the background, while designing my life out. But, what if I make good use of the many communities I am following? What if the right scope and functions of people in those communities are to contribute to my loud thinking? Without too much hesitating I’ve prepared a draft message in the spirit of a quick call to friends, just to ask a simple question. And I started to post it in my favorite online circles.

The Forum

Making complexity simple. (yeah, sure…)

Christian Tietze was lightning fast:

  • When someone asks “how do you deal with complexity”, I was trained to reply “by reducing it“. That’s probably a very common takeaway when you read about general systems theory.
  • You cannot transfer complexity 1:1. It’s like how you cannot understand the world as-is. The complexity has to be reduced: in the case of humans, we have limited sensory input (one reduction), a couple of filters (another), and on it goes. (Check out some overviews of epistemology; […]
  • […]. So we never deal with the world per se, but with our representation of the world as we understand it. The reduction step is one part of the puzzle.
  • The other is the re-creation of internal complexity inside the system, aka us humans, through experience. Even our simplistic representation of the world gets richer and more nuanced; never the real deal, but more complex than the representation of a 1-year-old child.
  • How do you understand complex topics …– by reducing the external complexity of the unknown/the world/the topic, and recreating an internal representation with its own complexity —
  • … and explain them in an efficient and effective way for those people who can act to solve wicked problems? Now all of that sounds like a bit too much to discuss in one sitting. Richard Feynman did a great job at reducing the complexity of physics and explaining it to others.
  • […] “wicked learning environments” that (Epstein 2019) said he got from (Hogarth 2001), but I haven’t checked!, which is: [T]he rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both. (Epstein 2019, p 21)

sfast was lapidary:

  • I never explain anything to people who are the ones who take action. And I never accept anything from a person who does not take action but theorizes about a problem.

This makes me think. And I am not sure yet what I think about it.

Ethomasv provides a practical approach:

  • […] complexity is somewhat individual assessment.
  • Whenever I have something that I can’t grasp I do:
    • 1. Find practical examples – seeing how something works in practice helps
    • 2. Find special cases – those cases live on the edge of complexity, usually they are unique because they rely on the theory, but they have specific conditions so that a big portion of complexity can be reduced with abstraction.
    • 3. Find more than one explanation of the same thing – sometimes the obstacle is not complexity itself, but the way explanation is phrased. I always look for different authors and textbooks, they will deal with details in a different way, organize info in a different way, and one of them will resonate more with the way I think and connect information internally.
    • 4. This brings me to the last point, there is no one universal way of explaining something because in order for someone to understand you, you need to use their mental models to describe something to them. Your mental models won’t work. So when I am trying to explain something to others, I try to build up complexity instead of reducing it. I start with very simple building blocks that we are familiar with and then combine them into this complex thing I am trying to explain.

A great synthesis with essential concepts related to understanding, explaining, communication, and mental models. Well done.

Jeannelking connected:

  • […]  my colleague, Dan Roam, said that has stuck with me: “the person who can best describe the problem is the person best-positioned to solve the problem.”
    •  @ethomasv presents a great example of this in their post above. When we can find a way to understand the problem well enough to describe it effectively to another, that can bring both of us to a place of greater clarity and understanding, where meaningful solutions may begin to be explored.
  • Alan Alda’s book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?”, Alda Center for Communicating Science
    • this speaks to being able to explain them in efficient and effective ways for people to be able to take action. Alan Alda’s Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stony Brook focuses on helping scientists communicate huge – and wickedly important – ideas in ways that non-scientists can understand.
  • Dan’s statement focuses on increasing clarity for yourself, which can then be shared with others. Alda’s book focus on how to do that sharing in effective ways through connecting, relating, and storytelling.

Jamesrregan links

  • Uncertain times The pandemic is an unprecedented opportunity – seeing human society as a complex system opens a better future for us all.

GeoEng51 refer to the Bongoist

  • I believe Richard Feynman had a quote along the lines of — if he wasn’t able to teach a physics idea in a first-year undergraduate class, he didn’t really understand it himself. So, one tactic might be to strive for that level of understanding and clarity on an idea first for ourselves, before we attempt to enlighten others 🙂

And that’s exactly what I like to do when I want to create clarity on my mind about complex topics.

Ness Labs Community

Explain it to me like I am 6. (Can you understand/explain/manage complexity?)

Kathryn Ruge went for a communication strategy

  • What’s the podcast theme and who is its audience?
    What do they listen for, typically – answers or questions to make them think?
    Are you a fan/listener of the podcast yourself?
    Are you typical of the type of person interviewed, or are you a break with tradition (ie something different for the audience)?
  • Always start with your audience. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, how can you curate what you know into meaningful learning and take them on a journey?
  • The podcast host should be able to tell you about who their listeners are and why they’ve invited you on the show.
  • Also, how long is the interview? Your topic so far is actually three topics:
    • How do you understand complex problems?
    • How do you make other people understand them?
    • How do you create a positive, efficient and effective movement of change-makers?
  • Unless you have half a day :-), I suggest focusing on 1 and 2.

And “always starting with your audience” is an universal permanent design principle.

Writing Group in the Inner Circle of Ozan Varol

I wrote:

I am going to be interviewed for a podcast about design, Systems Thinking, Critical Thinking, and complexity.

I have been so wise to choose an impossible topic: “How do you understand complex topics and explain them in an efficient and effective way for those people who can act to solve wicked problems?”

I know it is just impossible. That’s exactly what frustrates me and move me, at the same time.

I was looking for your thoughts, inspirations, quotes, suggestions but also provocations, critiques, pitfalls, traps.

Of course, I am taking into good consideration the continuous efforts I am putting into my Zettelkasten. It grows. In a messy way. With joys and pains. I have one “Ah-a!” for 10 letdowns. But I know it’s my chance to really augment my brain.

What’s your fuel to feed my fire?

Making Complexity Simple

I have a few online pen friends, there, following the evolution of my writing endeavors.

Kathleen Marie (Kmarie6) fueled my fire like this:

  • Is understanding complex topics a process? Are you looking to find a system that can take one through the process that accepts let downs, seeing the letdowns as steps towards the ah-a?
  • I’ve always liked the idea of asking “Why” 3 to 5 times as a way to get to the root of a problem. What has been your own process in creating and continuing your work on Zettelkasten?
  • I feel the toughest part of your topic is explaining in such a way that one can then be effective in solving wicked problems. How do we take into account everyone’s different learning styles, biological frames of mind that integrate with one’s personality, etc. in order to explain in such a way that they “get it”.

Critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication, appear.

Rage-panda gave it a go:

  • I would love to learn more about, and discuss this topic. As my role in product management, we often have to take a large complex problem and break it down into smaller solvable problem to solve. To increase complexity, the solutions themselves are also complex, which requires breaking down the solution into atomic elements that can be implemented sequentially based on dependencies and value.
  • Once that’s one, I review the atomic elements to determine dependencies and ensure what sequence it needs to be supported, or built.
  • Finally, now that I have the protagonists (the solutions), the antagonists (the problems), the journey (the sequence of events), I can start to build the story or narrative to explain the problem or the solution or both depending on the audience and objective.

See how the essence of complexity emerges? Reductionism, finding dependencies, telling a story to unroll the complexity.

Farnam Street of Shane Parrish

Can you make complexity simple?

Nickbudden suggested:

  • You may find a good resource in Tesler’s Law / Law of Conservation of Complexity. There’s some good resources in the appendix on more recent copies of Obvious Adams, too. Tesler’s law is my most useful. After a certain point complexity is not going to go away, however, you can make a choice about who deals with it.

An interesting law I was already supposed to know and a weird book. Nice!


Liberalintent elaborated:

  • Hidden in the word ‘complex’ is the feeling of frustration that you can’t get the answer right away. If you could look at it and get it, then you wouldn’t call it complex, you’d see it and call it simple.
  • Your attention is focused on something large thinking it’s large and difficult, and because of that, you aren’t focusing on the details which make up the complex. For example, we know we need a car to drive, but we may not know all the parts of why we drive. We just drive.
  • Simplicity when dealing with complex tasks comes after repeatedly identifying small chunks of the complex, reducing them to simple, and repeating over time. We know how to drive because we learned each part of driving.
  • So, there are two ways to make complexity simple:
    • Construction of the Simple
      Make infrastructure that is easy to interact with for the purpose you desire. I wake up and brush my teeth, because I believe brushing my teeth is necessary, so I will do it whenever I wake up. Every marketer’s dream is to be your toothpaste.
    • Understanding over Time(UoT)
      Reducing a complex observation to details you understand. And doing this until you can recreate the complexity in a easier light for others, so they can(at the least) believe that the complex is simple(i.e. construction above).
  • Simplicity hides the feeling of confidence that we understand, just like complexity hides the feeling of frustration that we don’t understand.

That was straightforward yet articulated and rich with metaphors. Really great contribution. I can see the concepts of living in systems of systems, zooming in and out according to the focus, reductionism to make complexity acceptable. And the beautiful metaphor of driving a car is something I already used in the past and I will definitely use it in the upcoming podcast.

Cestjeffici postulated

  • Complexity by definition can’t be simple. Framing the issue as making complicated simple would be easier. Most people don’t understand the difference. Looking at the Cynefin Framework definitions of complex and complicated will help.
    • In a complex system there is cause and effect but it is impossible to find because they are so intertwined.
    • In a complex system you probe and evaluate.
    • In a complicated system the cause and effect relationships are clearer. There are logical interconnections that can be discovered.
    • To make a complicated system simple you find the few places that have the most connections to other elements in the system. Changing one of those points changes the entire system.

How could we not talk about the Cynefin framework? There you go.

Bjorke confessed:

  • I like explaining things to kids. Or to elderly relatives. To someone with little patience, but considerable intelligence, and who I also love.
  • A big part of explaining is also listening – especially if the topics are complex. Your explanations are best posed as a mutual exploration, where your listener is discovering your topic, and you are discovering their course.

To which, Liberalintent, replied

  • I’ll second the listening part, I learn by putting aside what I thought was correct and acting as if I thought like someone else. I think the more of yourself you put aside, the easier it is to observe the reality, rather than try to tie it up in a neat simplification. The simplification always cuts out valuable parts of the reality.

And this is what I like to do. Exactly this. I love the concept of mutual exploration and putting your self aside to explore reality. Men and women, this is like being at the Luna Park, again.

Glinglin would strive for clarity, instead:

  • How can I develop a practice to explain things as clearly as possible?
  • A complex concept, when explained clearly, may not become simple, but will simply be understood. If a concept is understood, it can be practiced by people with the power to make an impact.
  • A model that you could use is the structure of Wired’s 5 Levels series. This series will take a complex abstract concept then explain it to:
    • a child
    • a teen
    • grad student
    • Professional
    • expert.
  • Here we see a musician explain harmony; first to a child then all the way up to Herbie Hancock.
  • You could model this by breaking a topic up into engaging explanations for each of the 5 levels, then using the explanation that best matches the ability of your target audience.

And that’s communication! The clarity in making things understandable, not necessarily simpler or reduced.

A rock in the water, without waves

This is what didn’t produce any useful feedback:

Hi friends,I was able to procure a little bit of a nuisance to myself.Talking and talking around people start to think…

Posted by Massimo Curatella on Thursday, August 27, 2020

The first synthesis in an outline

Being so inspired and full of prompts and inputs I jotted down an outline, kindly set up by Kevin in Dropbox Paper. Nice tool, btw. Not in a sequence, not exhausting, it is more of an anchor than a sequence of concepts.

Podcast with Massimo

Topics to discuss

I started to have a synopsis for a book. Something good to inspire a semester to teach. Great! This is really impossible to do in one hour!

Are we ready for this?

Of course, I am… not. What did you think? How can one be ready for complexity? You cannot.

But the fantastic amount of suggestions, books, links, articles, thinkers, and connections I received from online fellows is really astounding.

I was able to calibrate my thoughts, to refresh several concepts, to improve my bibliography, to refine some quotes, and to put together a better hierarchy of things to discuss thanks to an outline.

Isn’t that pure Collective Intelligence?

I am eager to share with you the podcast to have a logical development of this first decentralized, distributed, and networked research.

What will I say in the podcast? How much help did I get from this research?

Subscribe to my newsletter to know when the podcast will be available online.

Senior Experience Designer. 25 years designing, developing, writing, speaking, facilitating and teaching.

1 Comment

  1. Nice job Massimo. Good endeavour.

    To best prepare for complexity we must first understand it.

    “Complexity” to me is what *emerges* by looking increasingly closer at any object, issue, event or person.
    To simplify it, you need to zoom in gradually and highlight individual elements and their relationships.


Leave a Reply