Have you ever tried to build a strategy around a difficult topic and found yourself overwhelmed by the decisions in front of you? Perhaps it seemed like there was no way forward without either causing pain, dropping something important, or backtracking on previous gains you had made. Did any complex solutions beckon?

In reality, many problems we encounter do not require overwrought solutions. Frequently, it is the actions we need to take that are difficult; difficult in that they require commitment, investment, or compromise. Rather than make the hard decision, it can often feel easier to hide behind unnecessary complexity. This is clear from the number of over-engineered management frameworks that appear almost daily, selling complex answers to questions that really need simple but hard decisions.

A good example of the complexity trap is in resourcing, where most organisations we know face constraints. Given the current economic uncertainty businesses can be loathe to allocate significant budgets to net new initiatives. Yet the consumer landscape is inexorably shifting, meaning organisations have limited options to resist transformation. The combination of these factors can lead to capacity management challenges. How can teams deliver what is needed without additional investment?

Show people a complex diagram and they tend to leave you alone. Photo by John Barkiple.

Project managers will often argue about how to best structure delivery to maximise throughput, debating the relative merits of waterfall vs. agile or kanban vs. scrum. Ways of working are a favourite topic. If only we could switch to flex working and get another 30% of efficiency out of our workforce. Platforms and partners often feature prominently in these discussions. If only we had that new Software-as-a-Service licensed. If only we could bring in that consultancy to assist. If only. Complex solutions where a simple one would go the furthest by far: effective prioritisation.

The most efficient way to increase the team’s capacity is to deprioritise a competing deliverable. We  appreciate that this might not always result in fun conversations, particularly if stakeholders have been waiting on this particular output for a while. That said, it is important to acknowledge that effective delivery relies on realistic goal setting and ongoing reprioritisation, despite this often being relegated to an annual exercise. Strategy is not just a theme for your offsite; it is a continuous process.

Missing from a lot of this thinking is the fact that easy vs. difficult and simple vs. complex are not the same thing. One denotes the number of steps or elements to a plan, the other the degree of discomfort that the course of action will cause.

Sometimes we hide in simple and easy, but it is hard to spend a lot of time there. Image by us.

We see this in other areas as well. Organisation facing talent scarcity or leadership deficiency? No need to overthink the solution, simply double down on hiring. When a team makes hiring their number one priority – instead of paying lip service to recruitment – they will be able to find the right talent. This is difficult! Far easier to worry about complex benchmarking frameworks or role descriptions that are quick and easy to announce yet ineffective in isolation without the right talent present.

Some solutions really are necessarily complex; they require deep thinking, complicated processes or frameworks, and nuance and subtlety to pull off. More often than not, however, getting to the heart of an issue with clear, simple solutions, even if they are difficult, is a more sustainable and effective approach. So the next you find yourself facing an intractable challenge, ask yourself: does this truly require a complex solution, or is it just a case of knuckling down and doing the difficult thing? You might be surprised just how far the simplest solution gets you.

– Colm & Ryan