Don't Fetishise Complexity

It's not funny, it's not clever. Here's what to do instead.

Don't Fetishise Complexity
Good luck getting around in here! Image: Tom Hayton on Midjourney

Mastery of complex fields, complex skills and complex problems often brings great personal, social or financial rewards. From algebraic geometry to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, we value things that are difficult to master, and complexity is a key parameter of difficulty.

In business, complexity can offer a competitive edge if it makes a desirable product hard to replicate: whether it's software, or a luxury watch.  

So if you've mastered some form of complexity in your work, you might be tempted to share some of it in your presentations to non-expert audiences.  

Here's the problem: the value you enjoy through mastering complexity in your work, and the value that external audiences get from your achievement, are completely different.

Complexity is beautiful and fascinating to experts. But this can lead to fetishisation- in other words, granting complexity an unreasonable amount of importance.

My laptop, for example, is a complex object that I value very highly. To a computer scientist or chip designer, the intricacies of my laptop's design are probably very interesting.

But it's not my laptop's complexity that I value: I value its abilities to help me get my work done smoothly and efficiently. In other words: I value the benefits it provides me, which can be expressed very simply.

Of course, many of the great benefits I get from my laptop depend on its complex elements (such as its chip design). It would not be valuable if it didn't have those complex features. But I don't even need to know they exist in order to value the product.

So there's nothing special, interesting or valuable about complexity per se.

Your audiences care about the value and benefits your idea, product or service offers them. Not about the complexity within, as fascinating, beautiful and rewarding as that is to you.

Lessons from Hawking

Steven Hawking spent a lifetime working on complex problems in physics and cosmology. Complex, difficult stuff- here's a page from his archive:

Image: University of Cambridge Archives https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-PHD-05437/20

He wrote A Brief History of Time to bring his work to the general public. This involved translating the mathematical spaghetti he worked with every day into a form that regular people could understand.

When Hawking was writing the book, his editor told him that every equation he added to the book would halve its sales. In the end, he included just one, E=mc², hoping "that this will not scare off half of my potential readers."

He felt it was simply too important to leave out, but acknowledged he was taking a risk.

The point is: complexity in communication blocks engagement. So keep it out of your communications- your talks, pitches, presentations, marketing materials, and so on- unless absolutely necessary.

This means developing a whole different skill set to the central skills of your technical work- and that's why this site exists!

Lessons from Rolex

Brand advertising can provide some insights. Here's a great ad from Rolex which focuses on its story and the stories it's been part of, rather than diving into the complexity of its products:

Rolex and Cinema

The ad cleverly elevates the status and appeal of the brand (and therefore the products) by drawing a parallel between Rolex and cinema itself.

"It's not a time machine, although it has the power to revive history and explore any possible future. It's not simply a timekeeper, either. It certainly holds our fondest memories but also our deepest questions about who we are and who we aspire to be. It's not merely a sign of the times, for it reflects the unalterable passions in our hearts, constant obstacles on our way, and our willingness to take them on, always. It's not just 24 frames flickering every second- it's a testament to what truly moves us. A legacy that lives on and a quest that knows no end. A perpetual movement. It's...cinema."  

The script repeatedly underscores the idea that cinema/Rolex is not simply a bunch of technical features, but a kind of force for moving through time and imagination.

You might think Rolex is overrated (or overpriced!) but ask yourself how it achieved its status. It wasn't by festishing complexity.

Application to Startups

In the startup world, I see far too many pitches present complex ideas that require tons of prior/technical knowledge, high cognitive load, and/or great leaps of the intellect.

Here's an example:

There's a lot of ego involved here.

Handling complex subject matter makes us feel clever. Mastery of complex problems makes us feel proud. And sometimes the presenter hopes the audience will appreciate the beauty and wonder they experience with complex subject matter.

Or maybe they think that if they present something too simple, the audience won't value it- especially if they're looking to raise investment.

The temptation to fetishise complexity is strong, but you should make every effort to avoid it.

Your audience won't thank you.  

They might nod and smile out of politeness or to avoid looking ignorant. Most likely, they'll be angry with you for confusing them and wasting their time.

Investors, in particular, appreciate presentations that get to the point quickly and efficiently. You can dive into the underlying tech if they ask, or if they decide to move forward with you.

If you want to stroke your intellectual ego, that’s fine, but do it at an appropriate time and place- such as brainstorming among fellow experts or presenting a technical paper. Don't do it when you’re in front of a non-specialist audience, where your job is to serve up relevant value.

An Exception to the Rule

The only situation in which you should dazzle an audience with complexity is when you're trying to show that the problem you're solving is a problem of complexity.

In cases like this, you should set the scene with a snapshot of complexity, and then quickly move on.

Here's a great example: a slide showing the complexity of American strategy in Afghanistan. When it was publicised, it was widely criticised for being too complex.

Taken out of context, I'd agree. But if the point of this slide is to show how complex the situation is, or to set the stage for a simpler representation or clear-headed analysis, then it's more than fine- it's brilliant.

One warning if you take this route: avoid ghastly generalised cliches such as, "we live in an increasingly complex world". Be specific about the type of complexity you're addressing.

As a general rule, though, keep things simple. If your audience wants to dive into complexities, they will ask you.

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