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!

TryTry ThisThis

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.

  • Wonderful article–and oh-so-true. One of my mentors said that when you feel really uncomfortable and confused, a breakthrough is just around the bend. I just need to remember to be comfortable with my discomfort until to arrives.

  • I’m also reminded that sometimes I get the greatest benefit from stopping the struggle and walking away for a while, maybe even a whole day. When I come back to the project (writing a grant proposal was my most recent struggle), it looks totally different and the pieces fall into place almost by themselves.

    Sometimes I give my subconscious mind a command to work on it while my conscious mind is away. It might seem silly but it relieves the anxiety and worry.

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Hi Cassandra. Yes, I think that’s a great strategy. A good reason for starting early and building in time for a day off! Thx for the comment.

  • Jana

    I participated in the webinar and it was quite possibly the best and most productive half hour of work time in a very long time. As a program director, I have struggled with changing unproductive meetings into meetings that every employee values and appreciates. With your suggestions in hand, I am much closer to my goal. Thank you for working past the complexity to the elegant simplicity!

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Jana, thank you so very much. You have made my day! You’ve made it all worthwhile. Good for you for working to change the meeting culture at your organization. There’s so much to think about on the topic. I think I’m just at the start of a rich and important topic. 20 minutes was oh so short! Thx again. Your comment really hit home.

  • Great topic, Andrea. As always I have a contrary point of view – I sometimes think I was put on earth for the sole purpose of being a pain in the ass.

    Anyway, I do agree that it takes time to absorb a topic when preparing to write or speak about it. As you recall from essays class, just getting a grip on something so as to be able to write about it was like trying to get a grip on a polar bear while blindfolded and wearing mittens. Or something like that.

    The hardest for me, as a professional writer, was when I had to learn about a complicated topic that I knew nothing about (for example, some complicated tax or finance issue), then figure out how to present it to my reading audience. So it was really two tasks: first, struggling to understand a new thing, and second, deciding how to present my newfound and perhaps fragile understanding to a third party.

    Regarding task one (gaining an understanding): my own view is that we habitually over-estimate our verbal ability to simply recite things we have read or been told or otherwise “learned.” This is not yet real learning. We can feel stupid at our inability to make sense of “facts” simply because we are only at this early stage of being able to recite them but nothing more.

    Generally I need quite a bit of time – sometimes a day, sometimes months, depending on the topic – for facts to sink in and be processed by whatever deeper or more intuitive intelligence lives behind my initial verbal ability. If understanding still doesn’t come, then sometimes the next step is to ask myself what exactly I do understand vs. don’t yet understand – where the gaps are and so forth. I make lists so I can ask the questions I need to ask.

    Anyway, let’s say that eventually I do understand. So now I can write about it for someone else.

    But here is where danger lurks. Because sometimes task two (writing or speaking about a topic to someone else) can actually distort or misrepresent what we learned. Sometimes there is no danger – sometimes task two is an enlightened version of our own process of learning & gaining understanding. But all too often task two turns out to be a process of over-simplification that has only persuasion as its goal. Something that sounds good but is not really what we “know.” It can be hard to know the difference. When we write or prepare a speech and it is maximally glib and persuasive, that is often when the things that are most difficult and vital & important to real understanding are being left out. Because they are inconvenient, perhaps.

    Reality is never that simple, nor that complex either. When we speak of simplicity vs. complexity we are never speaking of the exterior world. We can never directly know an exterior world. All we are speaking of is our current level of understanding, which is an approximation at best. Ernst Mach had a lot of cool things to say about this – he was writing about the philosophy of science but it could easily be applied to any topic.

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Thank you so much, Randy, for your wonderful comment! I don’t find it contrarian or pain in the ass at all. In fact, it highlights conundrums I often wrestle with these days–the need to be brief and simple (simplistic) about complex topics and the pressure to use marketing language that promises undeliverable results.

      You touch home again when you separate the issues of mastering a subject and presenting it. They are, of course, distinct.

      I’m back in the throes of complexity about my meeting topic and my presentation of it. What seemed for a moment to be elegantly simple, has once again become a muddle…or at least the presentation of it has.

  • Tyko

    “Stick with it” may be the most important piece of advice, at least for the sort of activity that came to my mind as I read this “Try This” entry.
    I used to own an old V4 Saab. It’s exhaust manifold would need replacing every couple of years and consisted of 4 pipes, 2 on each side of the engine block, that fed into a single pipe that would be bolted to the tailpipe leading under the car to its rear end.
    That manifold looked like a single, rigid set of bull’s horns. I’d jack up the car’s front and block the wheels, get underneath, and remove all the bolts so the manifold was free from the car’s block. Now, after the first time, I knew I had another full hour before I could replace it with the new manifold.
    The task, after all, is so simple: unbolt it; let it drop down to the ground; replace it with a new one and re-bolt it to the engine block.
    The complexity was in “letting it drop to the ground.” That never happened, no matter how I tried to turn those bulls horns, wiggle them, jiggle them, look for a “secret” angle. I knew that I simply had to keep doing this for about an hour, and then, magically, it would drop to the ground, on its own.
    I never figured out why this was, but I came to know that I would succeed after spending an hour on my back on the ground.
    Time spent, sometimes, defines that complex knot in the middle of Andrea’s diagram.

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Ah Tyko, I remember that very well. You, on your back under our little red Saab. I’m afraid these days, most people no longer have the opportunity to learn such great lied lessos fixing their cars. It’s yet another casualty of our high tech world. I wonder how people learn those lessons today when there is so much pressure to do things quickly and to throw away rather than fixing! Thx for commenting!