Pushing Past Complexity to Discover Elegant Simplicity


I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

–Oliver Wendell Holmes

Have you ever worked on a project that you thought was simple, but the more you worked on it, the more complicated and intertwined everything got?

Did you worry that you were getting lost in a sea of ideas?

But then, just when you were about to throw your hands up in frustration, you had a moment of clarity. Suddenly, what seemed hugely complicated became simple again.

That’s just what happened to me.

Beyond Frustration lies the “Ah-ha!” Moment

I spent 40 or more hours reading about and looking into what makes good meetings. I had been asked to do a 30-minute webinar and meetings were on my mind right then, so I proposed my topic — Meetings in the Wired World.

Now, I know a good deal about meetings, and thought I could do it quite easily.  But the more I read and explored, the more complicated the topic seemed and the more frustrated I became.

I had post-it notes everywhere, and reams of notes from my research. Topics ranged from the deep psychology of groups to books on participatory facilitation skills. My desk was strewn with papers.

And then, finally, the message became crystal clear:

Any meeting, whether in person or virtual, will be effective if every participant is fully present!

Ah-ha! — The Simplicity of “r u there?”

Yes, this was the simple nugget around which I could weave my talk. If the answer to “r u there?” is a resounding YES, then your meetings will be productive.

Simple and true. But there’s a lot to say about how to make sure that everyone is really present. And that’s what my session turned out to be about.

A felt a huge relief. What started with a simple idea of meetings in wired world, became a huge muddle of information, and then got simple again — boiled down to a clear and compelling idea.

To use Oliver Wendell Holmes’ expression, I got to the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Breaking Through Complexity to My Ah-ha! Moment

I wish I could tell you how exactly I broke through. I’m not sure there’s a magic formula, but here’s what I did.

My 4 Steps to Clarity

  1. I put ideas on discrete cards using a sharpie and made sure I had one idea per card. I used phrases — writing paragraphs with sharpies on index cards simply doesn’t work!
  2. Then, I kept sorting and rearranging them. Once I thought I had something, I gave a short presentation out loud, lecturing my two old cats. When it started to feel cogent, I called my friend, Jezra Kaye, who is a remarkable speaking consultant. I contracted with her to spend an hour listening to my talk and giving me feedback.
  3. I listened to my friend’s feedback. And much to my distress, she wasn’t at all impressed. “Nope,” she said, “you’re not there yet! You’ve got too many ideas and they don’t yet express an easy-to-grasp concept.”
  4. So back to the drawing board I went. Only this time, having seen it through Jezra’s eyes and knowing I needed to boil it all down to one simple concept, I realized how it all fit together. “Ah-ha!”

Fifteen minutes later, it all made sense.  I felt my anxiety slide away.  I knew what I wanted to say, and that felt great.

My tips for you?

  • Allow plenty of time on your project to go through the messiness of complexity.
  • Stick with it until you come out the other side, even if it feels lousy.
  • Ask for help from a pro — and while I do recommend Jezra, sometimes just another set of eyes or ears is enough.

In the end, you have to find your own clarity. The struggle (and a little constructive feedback) will give way to your “ah-ha” moment. When you reach it, you’ll feel great!

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Get to the Other Side of Complexity

The next time you have a project that requires you do some complex thinking, remember that you’re likely to go from simple to complex to simple again. Don’t get discouraged in the middle even though it may feel like a “groan zone.” Stick with it through that period until your mind cuts through the clutter and it all makes simple sense. You’ll find a great satisfaction in the resulting simplicity.

Have you ever experienced the simple-complicated-simple process? What was it like for you? How did you push yourself through? Share your experience in the comments.