The art of simplicity: Creativity at complexity’s far side

The art of simplicity: Creativity at complexity’s far side

Published On:
January 4, 2024

“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have,” noted the American essayist and historian Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. He’s right. Simplicity can be harder than complexity. And exquisite simplicity sits at the far side of complexity. To arrive there, we want to learn more about and work hard in the domain, juggle ambiguity and various perspectives, apply and experiment in the lab, and gain practical experience in the field. Yet it's all worth the time investment, as simplicity at the far side of complexity is often the starting point of true wisdom and great creativity. Please allow me to explain.

What is simplicity on the far side of complexity?

As alluded to by Holmes, "simplicity on the far side of complexity" suggests that we can achieve true simplicity not by avoiding complexity but by moving through and beyond it. We can best understand the concept when we look at —and gradually pass through stage by stage— the “complexity bell curve” until we arrive at the far side:

  • Initial simplicity: When first facing a new subject (topic, task, or problem), we lack a deep understanding or experience of the matter. As a novice, things look straightforward because we haven’t yet noticed the underlying complexities.
  • Encountering complexity: As we delve deeper and deeper into the new subject matter as an apprentice and later on a practitioner, we gradually become aware of its complexities. We begin to notice and appreciate more and more of its finer nuances, variables, and intricacies that make simple solutions inadequate or superficial. 
  • Navigating through complexity: In this third stage, we engage with, understand, and begin to juggle with the complexities. As we start comprehending the subject matter more deeply, we adapt our approaches and often change our initial perspective. We notice underlying principles and spot patterns and connections that govern the complexities. We are now (often more practical) masters of our field or even have advanced to being (often more theoretical) domain experts.
  • Simplicity on the far side of complexity: After thoroughly understanding and navigating the complexities of the subject, we eventually reach a point where we can distill the novel insights we gained in our journeys into simpler concepts, solutions, or understandings. As a maestro, our acquired know-how combines deep knowledge, acquired skills, rich in-the-field experiences, and profound reflections on the essence of all of this. Consequently, we now know how to synthesize the complex layers of the subject matter into its clear, simple, and essential gist. Unlike the initial simplicity, this new simplicity on the far side of complexity is well-informed, profound, and elegant.

Why does excellent creativity often reside on the far side of complexity?

The concept of simplicity on the far side of complexity applies to various fields, including science, art, philosophy, and business. Interestingly, the most profound insights, best ideas, and most elegant solutions often emerge when we engage with complexity in-depth rather than merely skimming its surface. When we master complexity to the point where we can simplify without losing the essence or integrity of the original challenge, we make it easier for creative breakthroughs to occur. And that’s why outstanding creativity often lives on the far side of complexity. Or as the American Jazz musician Charles Mingus put it: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.”

How can we move towards the far side? How do we know we are operating there?

Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to the far side of complexity. You have to gradually move along the complexity curve towards the far side until you arrive there. This journey requires a profound passion for the subject matter or domain you operate in and a willingness to work hard to deepen your knowledge and play hard to widen and deepen your practical expertise. 

Here are three strategies that help you to get to the far side (and give you feedback when you arrive there):

  1. Teach it to an absolute beginner: The famous physicist Richard Feynman advocated teaching a complex subject matter to an 8-10-year-old child. If they can understand the essence of the concept, you know that you have mastered it. If not, you know you have more work to do to deepen your understanding.
  2. Master the classroom, the lab, and the field: Can you teach the subject in simple terms “in a classroom” setting? Can you also demonstrate how to apply it in practical terms “in the lab” as an exercise or experiment? And finally, can you flexibly modify and spontaneously evolve your approach when you encounter the issue in real life “in the field?” If you can master all these aspects, then you are a maestro operating on the far side of complexity. 
  3. Operate on two (or more) mastery levels: Can you switch between different levels of complexity when explaining the subject matter to different audiences (e.g., expert delegates at an academic conference vs. laypeople attending a business networking event)? Being able to adjust your approach to at least two levels of sophistication is also an indication that you’ve arrived at the far side of complexity.

Conclusion: The Rewarding Journey Through Complexity

“Genius is making complex ideas simple, not making simple ideas complex,” noted Professor Albert Einstein. Remember that navigating complexity is not just a challenge; it's an opportunity. An opportunity to grow; to learn, practice, apply, and experience deeper; to innovate; to emerge stronger, richer and more adept; and to evolve into a maestro of a domain or subject matter who truly knows how.

  • What’s your take on the concept of “simplicity on the far side of complexity”? How does it relate to your work? How can it help you to become more outstandingly creative?
  • Consider checking out a related earlier blog article that deals with the process of moving from knowledge to wisdom called Shifting from 1D- to 4D-education.
  • Care to learn more about X-IDEA? Check out our X-IDEA website or download our X-IDEA booklet.
  • Contact us if you want us to help moving to the far side of complexity and creativity with your innovation challenges.

Epilogue: Moving to the far side of complexity: A personal vignette

In 2003, I realized in a Eureka moment of breakthrough creativity what my life’s true calling is: not continuing working as a corporate banker but becoming a business creativity maestro. I started my journey as an absolute beginner, a naive novice with zero knowledge of business creativity and innovation but with a 100 percent intuitive certainty that this is where my true talent resides. 

So, what was my strategy to quickly move up the curve and become an apprentice over the following 18 months? I took training courses with several of the world’s most acclaimed creativity experts to learn from them directly. Interestingly, I felt I got less value than expected after each training. I realized there was much more to the field than they had taught me and that I had much to learn about creativity. This realization greatly excited me, as I was on a quest to acquire this new domain knowledge underpinned by ambition and new life goals. So, I delved deeper and deeper into the domains by reading many books, doing more training courses with innovation practitioners, and applying the acquired concepts and tools to my work challenges while still working in corporate banking.

In August 2004, I left banking behind to join the master’s program of a leading Thai university as a faculty member. While starting my academic career still teaching general management courses (such as Principles of Management and Decision Skills), I already began applying fitting creativity contents and exercises. In parallel, I used every opportunity to deliver keynote talks and short workshop sessions on business creativity at business networking events. After all, I had not only burned the banking boats but ceremoniously cast them onto the pyre.

2005, I founded Thinkergy and successfully delivered my first corporate business creativity workshop. While I followed the vanilla creative process that was then the “industry standard,” I had already made noteworthy modifications to improve the standard creative process and help the teams produce better ideas. In particular, I added a second creative stage (which I called “Ideation (II)” in this first workshop), which later became the Development stage that significantly distinguishes X-IDEA from most other innovation methods. 

Later that year, I launched my new Business Creativity course at the university. Because my new class quickly became highly popular with our graduate students, I could teach 4 to 5 courses a year, thus giving me 4 to 5 learning cycles annually to fine-tune my X-IDEA methodology. As such, I had two weekly opportunities to engage more deeply with the knowledge in the new discipline and to test this new knowledge. How did I go about this? While being a teacher, I also became a learner and lab experimenter.

In every cohort, I varied my approach to explaining X-IDEA. I realized I needed to simplify certain conceptual aspects to help learners understand what I wanted them to do. So, to help the domain novices get it right, I needed to stop insisting on what is right (i.e., the entire, complex concept) and simplify to what was easy for them to absorb (i.e., a simplified, short-circuited version).

In parallel, I continued delivering largely X-IDEA-focused corporate creativity training courses. I began working on real-life corporate X-IDEA innovation projects, using a continuously improving X-IDEA methodology honed and optimized over a dozen learning cycles.

In 2008, we began our internal X-IDEA development project with a small Thinkergy project team (while continuing “prototyping X-IDEA in the field” in corporate innovation training and project workshops). We created a comprehensive toolbox linked to a simplified X-IDEA method, thereby operating on two levels of complexity: A simple level for learners and participants in an X-IDEA innovation project workshop and a more complex level for those who want to learn how to deliver X-IDEA training or even facilitate X-IDEA innovation project workshops. For these sophisticated users, we developed additional in-depth materials such as X-IDEA training guidelines and an X-IDEA project facilitation guidebook with more application examples and “Dos and Don’ts” tips on delivering events successfully.

After successfully delivering a series of genuinely complex innovation projects for various corporate clients in Asia and Europe with our new X-IDEA method and toolbox in 2010-2012, I knew we had arrived at the far side of complexity for X-IDEA. Then, I worked to achieve the same for Thinkergy’s other innovation methods (Genius Journey, TIPS, and CooL) that I fine-tuned in subsequent years.

To sum up, my journey to simplicity on the far side of complexity took several years of passionate learning, teaching, experimenting, refining, and applying the new domain knowledge in the lab and the field — and is still ongoing as I continue to experiment, hone and simplify our creative know-how of wow.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2023. A shorter version of this article is going to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.