Simplifying Complexity


As an ecologist, Eric Berlow studies networks and the interconnectedness of species, climates, and other factors. At a high level that’s probably not too far off from the real world of business in that increasingly complex projects and problems require a study of many factors. Maybe business professionals don’t work with different types of species (often), but in a fast-moving, global landscape it can be challenging to generate solutions that involve a multitude of variables and stakeholders.

Some of Berlow’s insights may sound slightly familiar, but his examples – especially those involving visualization tools and methods – are good nuggets to store for future use on, say, a PowerPoint presentation, or breaking down a hairy problem for a co-worker or a client on the back of a napkin or a whiteboard. It has become more important than ever to communicate complex scenarios without losing one’s audience. It’s no easy task.

In the deft manner of an expert, Berlow takes the very complex diagram the U.S. Government released in 2009 outlining the counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan and applies a method for how to tease it apart to draw out the “simple” takeaways. Unexpectedly, this leads to a very different way of viewing the plan as a whole. “So for any problem,” says Berlow, “the more you can zoom out and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of zooming in on the simple details that matter most.” Well said, although it may take some practice for the rest of us.


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