Run into Complexity, Return with Simplicity

Zach Hughes
3 min readSep 9, 2022
Albert Einstein in his office, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1942, Roman Vishniac

Our world continues to become more and more complex. We accept it. We expect it. We deal with it. Yet complexity bogs us down. It makes us slow. It makes us cautious. It causes all sorts of unintended consequences and fragility.

Simultaneously, we applaud the simple. We embrace it. We yearn for it. We absolutely will pay more for it. Our primitive limbic system is hard-wired to conserve energy, and simple is a better use of our finite resources of energy and attention.

Technology leaders have a particular role to play in this dynamic. The world is on fire with complexity. Technology leaders run straight into that burning building, hoping to return with something a little bit simpler for the world to use.

Like many technology leaders, I take inspiration from Albert Einstein. He had a few things to say about complexity.

“Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

I love this quote. It validates the problem that I’ve identified, but it also acknowledges that we can go too far if we are unwise. As we design solutions to problems, we need to make it easy for the world to use our solutions, while respecting the complexity constraints of reality. In other words, some solutions are so simple, that they aren’t useful or realistic. When that happens, we’ve attempted to take a shortcut that doesn’t really exist.

Here’s an example from transportation:

A bike is simpler than a car. A car is more capable than a bike. It also requires special training and licensure to operate. If you open the hood of a car, you’ll realize it is very complicated. Yet, engineers are developing fully self-driving cars. If they take shortcuts there, we could have tragic safety consequences. While simplicity is the goal, the complexity must be respected.

This leads quickly into the second Einstein quote I’d like to explore:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

There are two parts to this idea: communication and understanding. Unfortunately, these two don’t always go together, but they should.

Some of the smartest people I know are awful communicators. Some of the best communicators I know have only a surface-level grasp of the concepts they speak of. There’s no wonder why we have so many problems.

We have a long way to go to fully respond to Einstein’s challenge. We need to go deep into complex topics. We need to up our communication game. It’s hard to overinvest there. We need to find the best way to explain very complex topics, so we can be a valuable resource to others.

Here’s what good looks like: Explain a complex topic to an unfamiliar audience in a way that gives them a clear understanding of the issue from their perspective. That’s good, but not good enough. You also need to be able to answer nearly every question without saying “I don’t know” or guessing.

If anyone ever says to you, “Explain this to me like I’m five,” you’ve got an opportunity to succeed.

If you are looking for a little inspiration and laughter, look no further than Oscar’s explanation of a budget surplus to Michael in “The Office”

Let’s all hope that your audience is smarter than Michael Scott, but just in case they aren’t, be as prepared as Oscar. He communicated his understanding of a complex topic masterfully.

I’m going to keep this article short. Know your role as a technology leader: Don’t fear complexity. Others fear it, but you won’t. Understand it and make it simpler (but not too simple). Finally, explain it well to the rest of the world. Do that, and you’ll make this world a better place.

If you like Albert Einstein’s quotes, check out this other article I wrote about being a person of value.

Read this article on my blog site or listen to it on my podcast🎙️



Zach Hughes

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.