Useful Complexity

I’ve been thinking about the many emails I have received about my recent posts about my status board. I wrote about this on Monday, but that only spurred another round of email from folks that can be summarized as a concern for useless complexity.

In summary, I already have systems to manage projects and tasks, but recently I’ve been using a personal status board to give me an overview of what’s on my plate and its current status. This is all data already in my existing systems but not as accessible to my visually-biased brain as a big diagram.

All of these folks writing to me are not coming from a place of criticism so much as legitimate curiosity. Why would I add one more thing to managing projects rather than spending that time doing projects? From my perspective, this status board was born out of frustration (and underlying anxiety) that, despite my systems, I didn’t have a way of quickly seeing everything and where it stands. I have many oars in the water, and the various threads of my life are very different. I added the complexity of the board to address this problem. The status board is, for me, what I would call ”useful complexity”.

I understand the drive for simplicity. A simple solution is, nearly always, superior to a complex one. But at the same time, a simple solution can also only get you so far.

While in law school, I had one job: stay in the top 20% and keep my scholarship. I thought about it every day. I didn’t have a job. No wife. No kids. Really no commitments except testing in the top 20%. To make things even more interesting, in law school (at least my law school), there was only one test at the end of the semester. Particularly at the beginning, I had no idea if I was any good or bad at being a law student. None of us did.

So with a single goal every day, my system was pretty simple. I wrote three things down on my napkin each morning. I stuck it in my pocket. I didn’t go to bed until they were done. Trust me, I came to appreciate the benefits of simplicity during those years.

Now my life is much more complex. I have clients that rely on me, customers that buy things from me, partners and team members that depend on me, and a family that needs me. Complexity in obligations begets complexity in management.

Ultimately, that led me down the road of creating one more bit of complexity in how I manage my projects. It was not some desire to fiddle, but a genuine need for another tool to make sure I don’t blow it.

Whether something like a status board makes sense depends entirely on where you exist on that spectrum between 1991 and 2021 Sparky. I think the real lesson I’ve taken from all this feedback is not to be afraid to add useful complexity, provided it is actually useful. So long as the bang is bigger than the buck, you‘re okay. I probably spend less than 30 minutes a week managing the status board, and in exchange, I no longer feel that where-the-hell-is-everything anxiety.

Maybe one day, things will slow down for me, and I will be able to turn the complexity knob down with some of these tool. But for now, they are making me better, not worse. My lesson is not to be biased toward simplicity or complexity but instead to be intentional about where I draw those lines for myself.

Where are you drawing those lines? Are you always looking for the most complex solution? Are you worshipping at the church of simplicity only to fail at your commitments? These are both slippery slopes and only something you can manage if you pay attention.