4 Questions that can simplify your understanding of complexity

by Dr. Glen Jones

We constantly hear about how our world is becoming more and more complex. With the connectivity that has grown in recent decades and mass data, it does lead us to see our world that way. It is almost like complexity is the apex, and that pride is taken in the complex. As leaders who communicate to ensure support, understanding the complexities seems in all actuality, daunting.

I agree with one of the greatest minds in history, Albert Einstein.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. ~ Albert Einstein

Einstein was not saying that systems and problems are not complex. He was referring to understanding the true nature of these systems and problems. I would like to explore this concept for a moment. I would like to attempt to explain Einstein’s statement and its implications for leaders (and everyone else reading).

Let us take a complex supply chain system. This system may connect multiple layers of vendors from many varying markets that supply a manufacturing company that produces tech devices. I will not use the widget, but maybe we should consider a wearable technology. Think about the materials and components that go into such a device. The materials may come from anywhere in the world. The components come from many different suppliers.

Looking at this product, and the worldwide supplier network, we should consider the multiple currencies involved and the different languages involved. There are likely numerous contract obligations. Imagine the number of people depending on the information from this system up and down the supply chain to ensure efficient delivery to produce the product for the market.

I know I have not done justice to the complexity of this system, but we can extrapolate from this description to understand the magnitude of the task of building this system. Now, we need to understand the complexity of the system from the view Einstein would have us look, simplified. How do we do that? We should start by asking these four questions.

Question 1.

What are we trying to do? We want to identify the scope of the system. The focus of this question is to identify the system must do. In this case, the supply chain system should share information that ensures the supply of material and components to meet the demand for the wearable technology product. There may be other information to share, but this is what the system, stripped-down, must accomplish.

Question 2.

Why are we trying to do this? This question exposes the purpose of the system. These are closely related questions, and some may see an overlap. The point is this question broadens the answer to the first question. Why provides a look at the additional information that may be needed to accomplish the scope from the first question, what.

The supply chain system is being developed to reduce delivery time and reduce overall costs of the final product, the wearable technology. This purpose will lead to tradeoffs, cost vs schedule, and will result in many possible vendor options. But, again to simplify, the system should provide for sharing the necessary information to meet this purpose.

Question 3.

How are we going to do this? How are we going to share this information across the supply chain? We may choose to share the information through an integrated database system housed on a server in the company’s headquarters or an accessible database on the cloud.

Question 4.

Who is doing what portion? In the supply chain system case, who is providing the information to the system. I will not go into those details but understand that this can get complex once again. Answer the question with the simplest answer that provides the necessary insight. In this case, we may answer that each vendor will provide availability and pricing data for their material or component, and the manufacturer will provide the demand quantities and timing.

Each question addresses a different part of the complex system. Each question allows you to look at the problem from a different perspective. It builds to provide a simplified picture of the system or problem. A supply chain system shares the pertinent supply and demand information to ensure efficient delivery of materials and components to provide for low-cost wearable technology.

We tend to look at problems and layer in the details to make the situation more complex. As leaders, as project managers, we have a responsibility to communicate to others the complex in a simple way to justify approval, to win support, to ensure the core scope of our projects are completed efficiently and effectively. Asking these questions and answering them simply provides us with the proper understanding of our complex problems. They help us to explain the complex simply.


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