Is the world barrelling forward down an inexorable abyss of complexity?

Someone who has explored this subject in depth on his blog is Clay Shirky. He examined the trepidations of complexity in business with his piece ‘The Collapse of Complex Business Models’. But Clay expanded on this theme in his Web 2.0 presentation “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”

“All the solutions [to information overload like spam] are temporary. No matter what you get working, you have to re-tune it…You have to take the volume increase for granted.”

In other words, embrace the failure to ever stanch the flow of complexity into our lives, but harness its ferocity with filters.

There is a saying that ‘Technology can fix what technology breaks.’ And actually a range of ‘filters’ fill our lives to help us embrace the complexity that inundates us. The biggest example is Search. Search is what tames the complexity of the Internet to unleash all of its choice. Not just the Internet, but your own personal computer. Prior to Search, I use to methodically organise and file all of my documents on my machine. With Search, I realised that I no longer had to spend so much time organising. Most of the organisation was for the sake of making it easier to retrieve later. But with Search, it was always faster and more effective to search for it than dig it out of a file.

Another example Filters in the technology world is Abstraction. To simplify the complexity of the underlying code and mechanics, software companies often provide an ‘Abstraction Layer’ which provide a set of simplified options to the user at that level which subsume large chunks of complexity under the hood.

A more household tool is the Electronic Program Guide (EPG). When the number of TV channels go up, then the EPGs need to keep pace in their sophistication to help you find the shows that would most appeal to you.

When the number of coffee permutations go up, then it is the job of the barista to offer a ‘classic’ or ‘special’ which makes for an easy choice. A friend of mine, Karen Cross, opened up her own business running a sandwich shop. She applied all of her years of marketing expertise about providing high service, creative options and customer choice to offer the best sandwich selection around. And do you know what people bought most of the time? The daily special. Her explanation is that most people didn’t want to deal with all of the complexity of all the different options and the daily special made for a simple choice.

In the complexity of the business world, a classic filter is ‘Strategy’. I’ve always counselled people in Strategic Thinking with the following advice: “The key thing to strategic thinking is to start your sentences with the words ‘the key thing is…’.”

Leaders optimise choice; Managers minimise complexity. Both together can be balanced through powerful filtering.