The Complex Consequences of Simple and Easy

PS2-complex In this second post on marketing complexity I look at how the allure of simple and easy lulls us into seeing past complexity and focusing on the least powerful forces that impact sustained change and meaningful innovation.

H.L. Mencken’s oft quoted phrase (including on this blog) about simple answers being wrong lest we commit to doing the wrong things righter (as Russell Ackoff said) . Simplicity however, is seductive,”neat”, “clean” and wrong when it comes to addressing complex problems. Such problems require complex responses and such responses are hard to market to a public used to the neat and clean. To take a look at how this happens it’s first worth contemplating ways we get people to buy into the simple, wrong ideas in the first place.

Going past the guru

We’ve all seen the gurus and maybe have a few of their books on our shelves. They can make us feel good as they feel our pain and propose 3, 5, 7, 10, 101 simple, easy steps to success. Lists are everywhere packed with gems toting advice on how we can be better, live better, perform better and beyond. The track record of success for these books is mixed in their impact on human action, but they might make people feel better about themselves. Mitch Joel over at Six Pixels of Separation / Twist Image even noted how this desire for inspiration in simple motivational messagin has found its way increasingly into the world of Facebook.

“If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else.” – Marvin Gaye. I just saw an image on Facebook of this quote. It’s not the first time. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a veritable onslaught of motivation and personal development quotes that are embedded in images (with varying degrees of artistic quality). Some of them are profound and powerful and some of them are quirky and cheesy. My added interest in this trend is the request to share, comment and spread them.

They are everywhere and I’ve shared some of them on Facebook and Twitter, too. But the sheer volume of these messages ironically might be their undoing in effect. It is as if the world is fine and we’re OK and life really is simple at its core. This, like many profundities in this world, is both the truth and a lie. Being true to yourself and aware is incredibly powerful, but it alone doesn’t change our collective wellbeing unless most of us do it together. For that, we need to do the work outside ourselves and within simultaneously. These messages imply change is simple (and sometimes easy), but the mistake is in thinking changing your world is changing the world at the same time.

Aspiring for change and doing the work to get it

This is both a marketing and unmarketing problem. Simple sells. It’s easy to Tweet and relatively simple to package. It’s also easy to mislead people into a sense of false progress and inspiring guruship with those who are the prophets or thought leaders behind this simplistic thinking. The next step is taking the meaning in these messages of hope and inspiration and connecting them to something beyond ourselves into something larger. It also means wishing for better, thinking healthier and acting on these in the world requires work. A lot of work… and that is unsexy and complicated.

Seth Godin is one who I find to be an ‘unsexy’ (with apologies to Seth, this is about his ideas not him) truth-telling antidote to the guru. His messages about success are both inspirational and aspirational, but always gilded with a message that the path is complex: it is about discovering our art, committing to it, sharing it with the world, and keeping at it over the bumps (work hard) while knowing when or if to quit.

In an age where there is a quick fix, discovering one’s art no matter what it is and living life through it not something that has a recipe attached to it. It requires we pay attention to ourselves (and our world) and our deepest needs, but also the patterns forming around us. Yet, with so much information swirling around us, we run into a problem of a widening signal to noise ratio. In marketing every message we send has to get through the din created by all the other marketing messages on every medium or device, all the other correspondence, the social media channels, the billboards, the books and pamphlets and on-the-field paint that bombards us with signals that are largely about creating an image of cause and effect.

Simple (but not obvious) rules

So how to get through it? One of the ways we naturally navigate through complexity is the use of heuristics (PDF book link). Heuristics are guidelines* that serve as simple rules to follow, providing a start point in the complex environment from which to act on. A tongue-in-cheek hueristic is to follow someone when in doubt, building on Douglas Adams’ line in The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy:

Follow that car, it looks like it knows where it’s going.

But this can fail us in complex environments and sometimes simple ones. Our preoccupation with leadership, success, and champions can be leading us on the wrong path. In a post earlier today, Annie Murphy Paul provoked some thinking about what it means to be #1 in a particular field and how it may be wiser to learn from #2 if we are seeking to emulate success in our work. Paul recognizes that success sometimes involves good fortune that cannot be planned, yet that there is research that suggests those not considered the guru might be worth paying attention to if we relax our gaze. She writes:

Tellingly, the most genuinely useful innovations tend to emerge from companies’ on-the-ground responses to economic and social challenges — not from business advice books. So concluded researchers Danny Miller and Jon Hartwick in an article in the Harvard Business Review, for which they tracked the coverage of business trends in academic, professional, business and trade publications over a 17-year period. Evanescent fads, they found, are usually simple, one-size-fits-all solutions promoted by charismatic “gurus.” Approaches with real staying power are more complex and multifaceted, and demand deep organizational changes.

Gurus, reputation and the failure of filters

One of the ways around this is to create filters based on reputation, which is at the core of social network research. However, it also falls into the trap mentioned by Murphy as attracting followers to the wrong gurus. Gurus can also be in the form of institutions. Another post by Mark Carrigan on the London School of Economics Impact of Social Sciences blog about how high impact journals also carry with them a sense of cultural power that off-loads much of the critical thinking to academic reputation. Drawing on the parallels with the art world, he points to the issue of time:

The obscenely wealthy but time-poor rely on such brands to guarantee the virtues of the art they invest in, assuaging the insecurities about their purchases which are only sustained because “they are not willing to spend the time required to educate themselves to the point of overcoming insecurity”.

We do this in scholarly work all the time and, I believe, even more so as the number of academic sources rise and our filters get filled. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, we are becoming overwhelmed by information and filter failure, short on time, and struggling to make sense of the complexity around us partly as a result of all of this. As complexity grows, the patterns of action become harder to see.

Carrigan challenges us to imagine what might happen if one of these patterns — prestige title — was removed:

Is it the case that within the academic world, inclusion in a prestigious journal becomes a substitute for, and certainly is a reinforcement of, intellectual judgement? As a thought-experiment: how would academic life differ if these status hierarchies weren’t available to help us navigate the knowledge system? How would we respond? I suspect that activities which are already everyday features of the academic world (particularly dialogue and debate within communities of practice) would take on a newfound importance. What else would be different?

For any marketing of complexity to work, the risk in creating a false guru is high, but so too is the risk of installing overly simplistic filters (reputation-heavy promotion). In both cases we need to address complexity with a complex response and doing so with one that doesn’t exacerbate the problem by adding too much extraneous information to our media ecology, getting us back into trouble elsewhere. This is pointing to problems, however there are possible ways to address them. In an upcoming post, I’ll explore what some of these are.

* I purposefully did not use the common term “rule of thumb” on account of its contested origin and overuse.

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