In a bid to simplify one small corner of my life, I recently cleared some boxes from the shed at the end of my garden.
The boxes were old, the shed is a mess, and the garden is a wilderness, so there was more than a hint of microcosm in what I was doing that Sunday afternoon.
In one of the boxes I found a mildewed collection of A-level text books, and I was drawn to a chapter on thermodynamics, the second law of which states that ‘chaos increases over time’.
Surveying the jungle of decrepitude that is my garden, I knew this to be true. I know it every time I look in the bathroom mirror. Every time we host Christmas. Every time I go to the seaside. Chaos increases over time.
As I peeled the pages apart, the science of this phrase began, in half-learned fragments, to return. Planes queued overhead, morning traffic was building at the lights, sirens wailed through the borough – and the world was indeed entropic: a system disintegrating and multiplying towards some complex and incoherent end.
Entropy. The word came back after thirty years in hiding. And with it a footnote about Yeats, and a reference to the ‘widening gyre’ of 1919.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Complexity in business is an inevitable feature of a system in which competition and permutation and proliferation and acceleration and pretty much every other scary word ending with “ation” are set together as endlessly compounding forces.
Type the word “complexity” into the City A.M search bar, and some 780 articles are summoned from the archives, all of them dealing in some way with the phenomenon, or problem, of complexity in business.
In contrast, as a Google search term, and indeed as a Google topic, the word complexity has been declining in volume since 2004.
It seems perhaps we became comfortable with complexity somewhere along the line. We began to distinguish between good complexity and bad. Good complexity was the type that clients would pay for because it added value. Bad complexity was the type that clients wouldn’t pay for because it added nothing but overhead. Over time, though, the good has been infected by the bad.
We achieved comfort with complexity in the same era as we achieved comfort with ambiguity (which, we are told, also comes in two flavours – good and bad) and now, to this list of modern sophistications, we can add untruth. Too much business, too much of the time, is conducted behind a veil of complex, ambiguous or fictional reality. Such obfuscations are fashionable, but we need somehow to grow allergic to them. We need to look for the black & white instead of inhabiting the grey. Mediocrity hides inside complexity, and every time we spread this modern veil we are complicit in our own downgrading.
We need to return to brutal simplicity of thought. Doing so, like clearing the shed, is a painful necessity.