Hidden Impacts: Keeping It Simple Isn’t Always Effective

One often hears the mantra, “keep it simple.” Yet, in our complex world, issues like globalization, global warming, and terrorism have so many variables and dynamic interrelationships that they defy human understanding. Often, desiring to make a difference, some kind of difference, business leaders and politicians, among others, often insist on simple, easily comprehensible explanations and solutions. They decide based on commonsense and gut feel. Such simple explanations lead to simple solutions that in turn enable a shift to action, which relieves the mental tension of struggling with an overwhelming problem. Unfortunately, the obvious answers often have counterintuitive and debilitating hidden impacts.

Funny car crash

Several stories of this type have been in the news recently. What these stories often have in common is that decision making in both political and business organizations is too often done by small group of leaders or experts—and sometimes by vociferous, impassioned blocks of citizens—who believe they can determine the proper course of action based on their superior judgment. However, complexity requires a different decision making process, because the human mind is inherently unable to fathom true complexity. (For one example of a different way to participatively make decisions, see social systems design.)

Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at a few situations that on surface suggested change for the better but also came with unforeseeable impacts. I’ve inaugurated the category “Hidden Impacts” for this, and the cases will show that sometimes the “no brainer” is not as simple as it looks.