THE COMPLEX JOB OF MAKING “SIMPLE”

The great journalist, writer and movie director Norah Ephron[i] used to tell stories about her mother´s particular characteristic of constantly framing events in terms of “everything is a copy”. Ms. Ephron didn´t know exactly what her mother meant by that. She used to think that it may have meant that things tend to repeat themselves, or simply that she thought everything was ultimately copied.

In time the same concept became more mainstream and refined, and today it is very common to speak about the fact that life and novel ideas are, generally speaking, a remix very much like that of a “mash-up”[ii]. A combination of the old and the new, in which we incorporate our own experiences and views as well as those of others who happen to have the power to influence our views and ideas. And the result becomes what is normally considered to be “novel”.

Like all simple concepts, it hides a great deal of complexity. I always say that we must strive for solutions that exude simplicity, or in other words, solutions that are elegant in nature. Albert Einstein[iii], Murray Gell-Mann[iv], Stephen Hawking[v], Isaac Newton[vi] before all of them, and even Aristotle[vii] before all of us, and generally speaking most scientists, tend to have a similar vision of their areas of expertise.

Furthermore, it is quite common that these ideas tend to overflow into their views of concepts related to life, nature and human existence.

One of the most vocal has been Murray Gell-Mann. Gell-Mann (1929-2019) was an American physicist. A friend and colleague of Albert Einstein, who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles.

A man eager to transmit knowledge, even in his late 80s he was still going strong. He is obviously famous for his scientific studies and most importantly, he is basically known as the father of the Quark, which is the name he and his team gave to a minute particle which is a fundamental building block of neutrons and protons, and which he found has very unusual properties.

Just like most scientists, his curiosity made him delve into other subjects such as linguistics, archeology, and he even expanded his views and opinions into the subject of creativity and innovation. Amongst those, he used to speak about the fact that the Universe as we know it, is one and we are part of it. And as part of such a large event, we follow necessarily certain rules that are common to everything that exists within it.

As mentioned before, Gell-Mann was not alone. It is not uncommon to hear physicists or mathematicians refer to the beauty, simplicity or elegance of equations or theorems and how these characteristics tend to be a good omen that a correct formula is close-by. In fact, Isaac Newton talked about the fact that “Nature is pleased with simplicity”, while Aristotle made a point in favor of simplicity by advocating as few as possible postulates[viii].

Gell-Mann used to always tell the story about his 1957 theory on the weak force which he and his colleagues decided to publish even though it was not complete[ix]. They did so even though it went against seven well know experiments which held very different views. According to him, they did it because they obviously thought they were correct, but the indication that this was so was just the fact that, to them, their answer was a simple one while the others were convoluted and ugly. In time it was shown that Gell-Mann and his friends were correct and all known experiments at the time were clearly wrong.

I always refer to the fact that simplicity is at the core of all successful enterprises, while overly complex concepts tend to have a much lower success rate, and in the case of initial success, relatively low survival rate. By simplicity I also mean organic, natural, intuitive, well suited to its economic and social ecosystem.

A common business example of simplicity and organic thinking that is well suited to its ecosystem can be found in most cellphones today. It is none other than Facebook.

In terms of its core architecture, Facebook is an example of simplicity, and it is so well aligned to its mission and vision, that it almost shocks those who sit down to analyze it.

For a long time -it may still be going on under the new helm- the then VP of Product and later CPO (Chief Product Officer) at Facebook, Chris Cox, would give newcomers a remarkable introductory talk. In it he would focus, amongst other things, on explaining Facebook´s product architecture and how it relates to the mission of the company.

When we talk about a company´s architecture, we mean the building conceptual blocks of a company, its structure, and how these objects relate to each other and with each other.

Cox, moved by great minimalistic aptitude, always described Facebook as a directory of people, their friends, and their interests; plus a directory of businesses, from global brands all the way to small local businesses. Plus, on top of those directories, a thorough map which basically showed the relationships that exist between all those groups. That is Facebook in a nutshell [x].

And it can´t be denied that it is a crystal clear formulation of the product, directly relevant to the mission the company has set, and above all, easily understood by anyone who sees it. It is in scientific terms as beautiful as it is elegant, it is in line – within the corporate cosmos – with Albert Einstein’s famous remark about the fact that he had faith in that “the principle of the universe will be beautiful and simple.”

As far as company´s architectures go, it is beautifully simple, and it is organic to the extent that it is following our everyday interactions, which occur naturally in society, and in doing so it is also helping us to make them richer.

Now, to the big question. Is then the claim that simple, beautiful and elegant answers or processes, as proclaimed by scientists -and partially concurred by many who deal in many diverse professions-, is based on factual evidence or there may be more mundane explanations for this? Does apparent simplicity explain itself or does it hide something else within the underlying structure of reality? Or can it simply be explained by way of sociological, psychological or practical considerations?

Just from the above enumeration of possibilities one gets the distinct notion that things are not that “simple” when we talk about “simple answers”.

For a start, it is important to notice that the aesthetics of equations -which is one of the bases for the scientific view- is quite deceiving. An answer may not be convoluted in terms of steps or length because many symbols, which make it look short and “elegant”, involve within their meaning, long and complex equations. What is hidden in all derivative operations is nothing less that long and complex definitions. Thus the “appearance” of simplicity may hide great deal of complexity, and it usually does.

But does this vitiate the argument that “simplicity and elegance” is a good sign in regards to proper and workable solutions?

While mathematicians compress very complex ideas in easily understood symbols, life itself does a bit of the same.
When I say someone is “good”, as opposed to someone who is “evil”, what am I really saying? The concept of “good” requires a long, and usually difficult to agree, definition. Many philosophers and theologians have spent their lives looking for a formal demarcation without definite agreement. Yet it is one of the most used concepts in any language since the beginning of time.

What has happened is that common consensus has looked to “simplify” its meaning. It is probably an acceptable explanation that what we call a good person can be conceptually explained as the sum of the idea of a person who (generally speaking) does not act against his/her fellow men, with one who (mostly) acts in a responsible manner, and one who has a certain degree of solidarity, honesty, and social conscience. May also involve concepts such as being a respected and loving father/mother, brother/sister, son/daughter, husband, wife, partner or friend. And so on.

The definition involves a series of terms which act in the same manner as arithmetical derivatives, and when put together, they come up with a symbolic word which makes a very intricate but widely acceptable concept into something simple and elegant.

The same can be said of anything. Our day to day life involves a constant oversimplification of complex concepts. The oversimplification factor can overlook many nuances but it also makes concepts easily understood and shared by all, and sharing is one of the key factors which transforms a society into a healthy and growing civilization.

So simplicity may be the appearance that intricate concepts acquire when consensus generates a commonly agreed -albeit limited- explanation or un unpretentious way of saying “effective complexity”. Everything seems to be pointing that way. A flower is a flower, but depending on the level of complexity with which I wish to analyze it, it is a flower or it is something so complex that only a molecular physicist, biologist or botanist can muster.

If it is then a matter of socially acceptable definitions? Can then simplicity be merely described in sociological terms? Is it just a mirage in a wide desert of concepts as abundant as grains of sand? The answer may be resting somewhere in between.

In the same way that the concept of the Universe can be explained in fairly simple and elegant terms, it can also be described as the most complex conjunction of situations, equations, “random coincidences”, and an uncertain prequel and origin we have been able not to ever explain at this time.

Simple answers thus generally hide extremely complex definitions, equations or layered responses which no longer need to be probed as their terms are generally accepted, or because the general description is acceptable on its own terms even if one sees or intuits that a more complex situation lies beneath the surface.

“Simplicity and elegance” may be then a matter of communicating the commonly accepted look and feel of something in a terminology that is understood by most at a specific period of time. A novel definition may be that “Simplicity could be defined as an elegant way of referring to Effective Complexity”[xi].

In terms of creative processes, innovation, and the bright new world we face, simplicity in its most commonly understood meaning, is key. For a start because it is the way most technology works. Not in the deep interpretation of its inner working environment, but definitely within the interface that acts with us humans.

In that regards, technology is forcing us -some would say that in mostly a good way- to simplify our methods and interactions, to allow the other side -be it longtime or casual user, client, colleague- to provide us with ways to work in a collaborative manner rather than the old fashioned way, where the designer/producer/service provider gave us the rules of engagement, and then it was up to us to understand how to use it in accordance to design.

A very common occurrence with technology may be that of explaining to an older person -and not much older mind you- that whatever it is we are talking about, it will not break. “Don´t be afraid, just use it until you get it right” is a common phrase. The idea of the designer as an all-powerful being which sets how things should work, for example within traditional product design, trained generations to be afraid of electronic equipment. And that happened because the interfaces -besides what may have been technological limitations- were not intuitive at all, but rather prioritizing some artistic or designing concept above ease of use. Now we have learned that both are possible.

A simple idea, an elegant architecture (corporate or otherwise), a concise and obtainable mission, a clear termed vision (a “mantra” in the terms of Guy Kawasaki), a simply understood connecting path between vision, mission and architecture, even intuitive programming that allows itself to be rapidly adopted by users are all different, yet they are all connected by the same common conceptual characteristic[xii].

And the connection is not an accident even if apparent simplicity may hide a great deal of complexity that most, unless looking for it specifically, do not need not know at first.

The simple answer, the commonly understood and shared goal, the straight line between two points still exists and we should always strive to aim for it even if just because it is the most satisfying of results. As to complexity. It is always there and, at least in general terms, it may need to be known only when the simpler answer does not satisfy us.
Thus, and to round up the concepts, I can find four clear reasons that support this view of simplicity and elegance as a good model to follow in most cases.

The first one would be that, in my experience, the answer which simplifies the steps which need to be taken as well as the reasoning behind it, has a tendency to be more widely understood and therefore, more likely to be put into action. And an answer which is widely applied is, by its own definition, probably not only correct at the time, but also successful.

Next, I would argue that an explanation which simplifies a complex issue, and thus adds a certain elegance in a response, is very often the result of connecting different occurrences to a single common cause. Therefore eliminating unnecessary steps and making the response more widely applied as well.

Concurrently, longwinded, complex (“ugly”), and difficult to understand answers or solutions will be more difficult to apply or prove, and thus less likely to be widely adopted, no matter their level of correctness.

Finally, and this may be cheating, but many scientists and mathematicians have a rule of thumb. Known as Occam’s Razor[xiii], so named – or rather misnamed – for the English monk William of Ockham (or Occam), c.1285-c.1349 AD. This concept stands on the idea that if there are multiple plausible explanations for something, the simplest one will probably be the correct one. To avoid reductionism, one should add that this rule has a proviso that says “all things being equal”. In other words, it is mostly correct as long as we do not compare “bananas and apples”.

So, albeit this may have seemed a dichotomist argument -as in reality what seems simple also hides intricacy-, the truth is that nothing in life is that easy, but almost everything should be approachable if explained in certain understandable terms. There is no battle here, but there is a probable winner nonetheless.

Whether in business, art, nature, mathematics or life itself, what we understand as answers that are, in relative terms, simple (ie: understandable, elegant, beautiful, non-repetitive, wider scoping, and so on) do run with an advantage over those seen as complex (difficult to fathom, convoluted, repetitive, ugly, non-organic, and so on).

“Simple” – elegant, beautiful- answers hide within their nature the inherent complexity of life itself, but manage to show their results in a way that satisfy most. And as such, they tend to provide us with a healthy guide towards the right path. And furthermore, and not by coincidence, if they lead us on the right path the end result will also tend to become a beautiful -and mostly successful- experience.

I.A.

(Originally published on Linkedin in 2019)

©2019 by Ignacio Alperin Bruvera

(S) Ignacio Alperin nació en Argentina, creció en Australia y vivió temporariamente en varios países alrededor del mundo. Posee una experiencia internacional extensa, y diversa, obtenida en una carrera profesional alejada de lo lineal. Hoy en día es Profesor de Entrepreneurship en los MBAs de la Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA), Profesor de Creatividad e Innovación (Grado) en UCA Internacional, es un Emprendedor serial, consultor, orador en eventos nacionales e internacionales, evangelista secular, y artista plástico.
(E) Ignacio Alperin was born in Argentina, grew up in Australia and lived temporarily in several countries around the world. He has extensive and diverse international experience, obtained in a professional career far from the linear. Nowadays he is Professor of Entrepreneurship in the MBAs of the Argentine Catholic University (UCA), Professor of Creativity and Innovation (Degree) in UCA International, a serial Entrepreneur, consultant, speaker in national and international events, secular evangelist, and an artist.

[i] Norah Ephron Biography https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nora_Ephron
[ii] What is a Mash-up https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mash-up
[iii] Albert Einstein Biographical, The Nobel Price Organization https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1921/einstein/biographical/
[iv] Murray Gell-Mann Facts, The Nobel Price Organization https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1969/gell-mann/facts/
[v] Stephen Hawking Biography, http://www.hawking.org.uk/
[vi] Isaac Newton Biography, Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences https://www.newton.ac.uk/about/isaac-newton/life
[vii] Aristotle Biography, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle
[viii] Aristotle and Mathematics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2004) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-mathematics/
[ix] Beauty, Truth…and physics? By Murray Gell-Mann, Ted Talks (2007) https://www.ted.com/talks/murray_gell_mann_on_beauty_and_truth_in_physics?language=en
[x] What I learned from Facebook CPO Chris Cox by Stephen Amaza,Hackernoon.com (2017) https://hackernoon.com/lessons-i-learnt-from-facebook-cpo-chris-cox-28ef615be643
[xi] Simplicity equal beauty, by Ignacio Alperin Bruvera (2013) – Unpublished-
[xii] Mantras vs Mission Statements by Guy Kawasaki (2006) https://guykawasaki.com/mantras_versus_/
[xiii] What is Occam´s Razor by Phil Gibbs (1996), Adapted by Sugihara Hiroshi (1997), University of California, Riverdale http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/occam.html

 

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