In a recent speech, Dan Heath* shared a conceptualization about the tension between simplicity and complexity that really struck home after the in-depth conversations I had on the subject with attendees at the Academy of HRD conference. At that conference back in February, colleagues Jo Tyler, Darren Short, and I led an interesting discussion about the fact that scholar-practitioners, in their translator role, often balance making complex theory and research simple against worrying that others might run with a simplified (or customized) version without fully understanding the underpinning work.
Dan Heath conceptualized the simplicity-complexity dilemma as a bell curve, with simplicity at the tails and complexity as the hump to get over in the middle. Dan suggested that the way to get over that steep curve is through education. Too often, we play on the left side of the curve, where concepts are over-simplified and not always interesting. The trick is to play on the right side of the curve, where a deep understanding of the subject at hand allows us to find the simplicity needed for remembering frameworks, providing advice, and teaching key ideas.
That bell-curved visual clarified a lot for me.
We can’t shy away from educating newcomers on the complexity of the theories that we believe are useful for understanding how to effectively practice in our field. As professionals, we should study learning theory, human performance models, change theory, social media research, business acumen and all of the other models that provide grounding and guidance for our decision-making and recommendations. We can’t rely on the one-pagers or four-color graphics that short-hand these complex ideas as the only knowledge we have about these models. While the internet and our own job aids often provide useful summaries and bulleted lists, we should take the time to explore the research, theory, and case studies that underpin them.
There are implications for our relationship with learners as well. We need to respect our learners enough to educate them. Feeding them simplifications and easy-to-read documentation without infusing the complexity of our research and theory base is like serving up a favored recipe without the essential herbs and spices that make the dish work.
I still can’t tell you what the right balance is between simplicity and complexity, but it’s worth exploring. More to come.