Why We Try To Solve Problems By Adding Complexity

“Most geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”

Andy Benoit

When companies want to change they almost always add something to the mix. A new team, a new senior leader, a new process, a new system.

We’re obsessed with adding new elements as a way of attempting to solve problems.

That’s why, at Bromford, we created a design principle that mandated that as we add something new we should also decommission something old.

I would be lying to you if I said it was wholly successful. It seems that when we want to change something, we are predispositioned to add things rather than subtract.

The authors of an article for HBR go some way to confirming this. They found that even when stakeholders suggested hundreds of ways to improve an organization, fewer than 10% of those improvements involved taking something away. Across a series of experiments, they found ‘that people systematically overlook subtractive changes, instead following their instincts to add’. They go on to say that ‘there is nothing inherently wrong with adding. But if it becomes a business’s default path to improvement, that business may be failing to consider a whole class of other opportunities’.

So, to improve a piece of writing, few participants in experiments produced an edit with fewer words. To improve a jam-packed travel itinerary, few removed events to allow them to enjoy the trip more. To improve a Lego structure, almost no one took pieces away.

Humans solve problems by adding complexity, even when it’s against our best interests.

In Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, Leidy Klotz describes why we do this. Often it is just signalling that we’ve done something, our innate desire to add our impression and build upon what has gone before. As he says “The problem is that it can be harder to show competence by subtracting….No matter how beneficial an act of subtraction is, it’s not likely to leave as much evidence of what we’ve done.”

Seemingly, subtraction is not the way to climb the corporate hierarchy.

When Less = More

Subtractive design is the process of removing imperfections and extraneous parts in order to strengthen the core elements.

Many of you will know that during the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman conducted a series of radical experiments on how road traffic could be managed. He stripped them of signs and other traffic controls in the belief that if drivers and pedestrians are confused, they are likely to behave more cautiously. And the evidence suggests that he was correct.

Chaos = Cooperation?

At the time, most of his colleagues believed in adding more traffic controls on the grounds that the better informed drivers and pedestrians were about the condition of the roads and how to use them, the safer they would be.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility

As he said “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

What looks like chaos can sometimes produce cooperation.

When we first designed the role of the Neighbourhood Coach that was principle we attempted to follow. What if we stripped away the policies and the procedures, the rules and regulations, the back office support colleagues and stripped a role back so it could perform its purpose unfettered of bureaucracy and interference?

A couple of weeks ago I got to go out with one of our coaches , Amy, in a neighbourhood I’d worked in about 15 years ago. It was what we once called a “Bronze Estate” , one of those places that was beset by a range of social problems and the resultant indicators of high rent arrears and anti-social behaviour.

What was clear to me is that Amy was succeeding where we had failed. Rather than adding things (specialist teams, additional budgets, new policies, more ‘professionals’) she was fostering community connections, bringing people together to solve problems and empowering individuals to do things for themselves rather than being done to.

She was strengthening the core elements rather than adding in new and temporary resources.

We often find it easier to face a complex problem than a simple one. However, by taking time to seek out those unrecognised simplicities and resisting the temptation to add more stuff we may solve those problems in an easier and much more sustainable way.

Header image by CongerDesign

Why Small Teams Win

In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos came up with a rule: every team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas.

The ‘Two Pizza Rule’ signalled that Bezos didn’t want more talking, more line reports and more communication. He wanted a decentralised, even disorganised company where creativity and independence prevailed over groupthink and the bureaucracy of management.

A smaller team spends less time managing timetables and keeping people up to date, and more time doing what needs to be done.

These small teams promote autonomy but also a better approach to collaboration. Having lots of small teams means they all need to be able to work together and to be able to access the common resources of the company, in order to achieve their larger goals.

The thinking has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks himself said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

Thinking small also avoids ‘social loafing’  – which is where people take less accountability for individual and team performance when doing work as part of a group.

It’s human nature that some of us may take advantage of a situation in which it’s harder to pinpoint responsibility—a situation created by the fact that too many people have a role in the team’s performance.

When nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing.

As a leader of a Two Pizza Team, I can firmly say that the high degree of “identifiability” means there is no room for anyone to hide – including me. Underperformance becomes apparent in days or even hours, not over weeks or months.

The Value of Small Teams in Change and Transformation

In many organisations, small teams are undervalued. Like introverts, they can often be overlooked.

Yesterday I facilitated a session for the regulator of social housing in the UK – and its theme was that in an age of big change (and arguably, big failure) – small distributed teams might be an answer to how we balance productivity and innovation.

Buurtzorg, the Dutch model of neighbourhood care started with an initial team of four. The system that evolved deploys teams of up to 12 nurses, who are responsible for about 60 people within a particular area. There are now around 900 teams in the Netherlands. This system balances small team thinking also whilst operating within a much larger framework.  The framework is what provides the scalability, the autonomous team provides the personalisation.

RSH Session (3)

Buurtzorg was very much an inspiration for our model of neighbourhood coaching – which again provides a framework for semi-autonomous small teams to bring solutions together around a community. It puts people at the centre – not housing ‘professionals’.


The Corporate Rebels have written about the Minimum Viable Team. Start small, get experience, grow bigger only when necessary.  I agree with this but also think there’s crossover with the points Chris Bolton makes in his post on Minimum Viable Transformation.

Most transformation programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.

Most approaches to organisational design are about BIG teams (and BIG resources) – despite no evidence linking these to productivity or innovation.

  • Maybe it’s time to think differently about how we solve complex problems rather than continue the endless annual cycle of calls for more resources and emergency injections of cash.
  • Maybe it’s time for smaller, more organised and better-connected teams to take centre stage.
  • Maybe it’s time to think about what minimum viable teams and minimum viable transformation look like and apply them in practical settings.

At the end of the day, radical innovation only comes from diverse networks, never from big teams.

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