Complexity: A Business Disease of the Industrial Age

Day 18 of 21 days with Chuck’s new book, Why Employees Are ALWAYS a Bad Idea

Complex things are naturally bigger, shinier, and with more moving parts and blinking lights than simple things. They’re mesmerizing. It’s easy to be fascinated with all the facets, angles and possibilities that come with being complex. But complexity destroys productivity.

We love complexity with nearly the same passion as our infatuation with Being Big. We buy word processing and spreadsheet programs for hundreds of dollars and will never use more than 1-3% of the features. The same programs are free on the Internet and still largely do more than we would ever use, but we’re sure that paying for the big, complex program is the better route. And Giant Corporation, Inc. has made it really difficult to use the simpler versions in compatibility with their versions.

Complexity Resists Progress
Remember, Industrialists don’t want progress that threatens their present market, or other people doing what they do, and will do whatever they can to keep others out and maintain the status quo. Sharing is not one of their attributes. Proprietary complexity helps them keep things as they are.

Complexity Confuses Us
Complexity is a way of modern life. The Factory System brought us daily newspapers, which increased the complexity of information exponentially. One daily issue of the New York Times holds more information than the average person in the Middle Ages learned in their entire lifetime. Couple that with radio, TV, magazines, the internet, billboards, and the advertising in your refrigerators; if you sometimes feel you are on information overload, it’s because you are. We weren’t built to consume and digest the dizzying array of inputs we get every day.

Complexity Makes Us Over-Consume
Physical objects have enjoyed a similar increasing intrusion into our once simple lives. In 1955, Gallup surveys showed that people considered approximately 70 physical objects as “absolutely necessary” for a basic and crude life in America (stove, sink, car, house, clothing, etc.). In 1985, it was 140+. I haven’t looked, but I’m guessing it’s more than double that today.

The Industrial Age brought with it a manufacturing prowess that made more stuff available than at any time in history. As it did, we were taught to need things that were not necessary for centuries before. I love our microwave and have no clue how we got along without one before they were invented. As consumption became normative, the factories were able to produce more goods. Consumption drove the Factory System of the Industrial Age, and that consumption gave rise to a dizzying array of choices.

Pluralization is the fancy word for having multiple choices. The Industrial Age gave us pluralized choices in every facet of our lives, religion (or none), convenient travel, expanded choice on where we live, information sources, cohort groups (bikers, campers, runners, gamers, gamblers, collectors), and a myriad of physical object choices with which to fill our houses and garages.

In the late 1800s advertisements read something like this “We have sinks for sale.” You just needed to know where to go to buy one, and they likely only had one. Today, there are dozens of manufacturers with thousands of choices for every type of sink. The Industrial Age gave us pluralization. For the first time in the history of man, we have a myriad of choices in just about every category of life,

Complexity Consumes Our Precious Time
As a result, by the end of the Industrial Age, in the early 80s the most popular bumper sticker read, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” My Irish friend says, “You Americans are a culture of maintainers. Rather then rent a condo, boat, RV or horse when you need one, you buy them and then spend all your time maintaining them.” All those consumer products and other effects of pluralization make life much more complex than it was in the days of the front porch and the rocking chair.

Complexity Makes Life Harder
Complexity in education, business, home life, society, religious options and throughout our culture grew exponentially during the Industrial Age. Before the Industrial Age, life was simpler. It was also in many ways much, much harder. But it isn’t complexity that made life easier. If anything, complexity makes life harder. Almost all the great ideas in business have been simple. The simpler an idea or product is, the more likely the world is to be able to advance the idea easily and organically.

Complexity Obscures Simplicity
Occam’s Razor (“rule” or “principle”), attributed to William Ockham, 13th century) states that given two equally plausible answers, the simpler one is likely the better choice or right answer. The developed world is coming around to this, and has begun to wonder if dying with the most toys is the height of human existence, or if the simpler answer might be the right one: Making Meaning. My grandpa told me when I was young, “Son, if you’ve got the choice between buying a car and going on vacation with your family, go on vacation. Build memories, they’ll last a lot longer than the car.” He was born in 1896, in a simpler time.

The Next Generation is Rejecting Complexity
Baby Boomers stacked toys and consumed wildly, where Millennials are more inclined to stack experiences and eat quinoa (my kids helped me learn how to pronounce it – keen-wa). Whether that is a return to a simpler view of the world remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the younger generation, which did not grow up in the Industrial Age, but only in the shadow of it, is rejecting the complexities of the Factory System with all it’s constraining and complex hierarchy, rules and regulations, for the freedom of a simpler relationship with the company as Stakeholders, so they are freer Make Meaning with their lives, not just money.

Occam’s razor seems to point to simplicity over complexity as the right answer in just about every business situation. The Factory System, with all its management layers, big words, fancy titles, and built-in segmentation of the workforce was built for another time. In the Participation Age, the companies that embrace and provide flatter structures and simpler cultures will attract those who are the most productive.

Choose Simplicity
Choose the simple answer. It’s almost always the right one.

This is a summary of a chapter from Chuck’s new book, “Why Employees Are ALWAYS a Bad Idea (And Other Business Diseases of the Industrial Age)”. Click here to pre-order this new ground breaking book at a discount on until July 28.