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On Complexity And Goodness

While browsing around on Amazon.com for more books to read on simplicity/complexity, the pleasant memory of reading Dan Ward’s terrific little book, “The Simplicity Cycle“, somehow popped into my head. Since it has been 10 years since I read it, I decided to dig it up and re-read it.

In his little gem, Dan explores the relationships between complexity, goodness, and time. He starts out by showing this little graph, and then he spends the rest of the book eloquently explaining movements through the complexity-goodness space.

First things first. Let’s look at Mr. Ward’s parsimonious definitions of system complexity and goodness:

Complexity: Consisting of interconnected parts. Lots of interconnected parts equal high degree of complexity. Few interconnected parts equal a low degree of complexity.

Goodness: Operational functionality or utility or understandability or design maturity or beauty.

Granted, these definitions are just about as abstract as we can imagine, but (always) remember that context is everything:

The number 100 is intrinsically neither large nor small. 100 interconnected parts is a lot if we’re talking about a pencil sharpener, but few if we’re talking about a jet aircraft. – Dan Ward

When we start designing a system, we have no parts, no complexity (save for that in our heads), no goodness. Thus, we begin our effort close to the origin in the complexity-goodness space.

As we iteratively design/build our system, we conceive of parts and we connect them together, adding more parts as we continuously discover, learn, employ our knowledge of, and apply our design expertise to the problem at hand. Thus, we start moving out from the origin, increasing the complexity and (hopefully!) goodness of our baby as we go. The skills we apply at this stage of development are “learning and genesis“.

At a certain point in time during our effort, we hit a wall. The “increasing complexity increases goodness” relationship insidiously morphs into an “increasing complexity decreases goodness” relationship. We start veering off to the left in the complexity-goodness space:

Many designers, perhaps most, don’t realize they’ve rotated the vector to the left. We continue adding complexity without realizing we’re decreasing goodness.

We can often justify adding new parts independently, but each exists within the context of a larger system. We need to take a system level perspective when determining whether a component increases or decreases goodness. – Dan Ward

Once we hit the invisible but surely present wall, the only way to further increase goodness is to somehow start reducing complexity. We can do this by putting our “learning and genesis” skills on the shelf and switching over to our vastly underutilized “unlearning and synthesis” skills. Instead of creating and adding new parts, we need to reduce the part count by integrating some of the parts and discarding others that aren’t pulling their weight.

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away. – Antoine de Saint Exupery

Dan’s explanation of the complexity-goodness dynamic is consistent with Joseph Tainter’s account in “The Collapse Of Complex Societies“. Mr. Tainter’s thesis is that as societies grow, they prosper by investing in, and adding layer upon layer, of complexity to the system. However, there is an often unseen downside at work during the process. Over time, the Return On Investment (ROI) in complexity starts to decrease in accordance with the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, further investment depletes the treasury while injecting more and more complexity into the system without adding commensurate “goodness“. The society becomes vulnerable to a “black swan” event, and when the swan paddles onto the scene, there are not enough resources left to recover from the calamity. It’s collapse city.

The only way out of the runaway increasing complexity dilemma is for the system’s stewards to conscientiously start reducing the tangled mess of complexity: integrating overlapping parts, fusing tightly coupled structures, and removing useless or no-longer-useful elements. However, since the biggest benefactors of increasing complexity are the stewards of the system themselves, the likelihood of an intervention taking place before a black swan’s arrival on the scene is low.

At the end of his book, Mr. Ward presents a few patterns of activity in the complexity-goodness space, two of which align with Mr. Tainter’s theory. Perhaps the one on the left should be renamed “Collapse“?

So, what does all this made up BD00 complexity-goodness-collapse crap mean to me in my little world (and perhaps you)? In my work as a software developer, when my intuition starts whispering in my ear that my architecture/sub-designs/code are starting to exceed my capacity to understand the product, I fight the urge to ignore it. I listen to that voice and do my best to suppress the mighty, culturally inculcated urge to over-learn, over-create, and over-complexify. I grudgingly bench my “learning and genesis” skills and put my “unlearning and synthesis” skills in the game.

Categories: technical