The Human Urge to “Degrade Into Complexity”


Once an organization is convinced of the benefits of implementing simple business processes to govern the work that they do, the organization must work hard to keep these processes simple, else they will become complicated and too difficult to maintain. Keeping processes – or anything else – as simple as possible is many times very difficult for people to do. From my observation, we humans have a natural urge to make things more complicated than necessary. In other words, we tend to naturally degrade into complexity under the guise of improving that which we do.

I once managed a team of highly technical software engineers who worked with me to design and implement a very simple process to govern our work. After months of discussions, we had a very simple process that was truly elegant in form and operation. Unfortunately, over time, our simple process degraded into complexity when the team tried to improve our elegant process by making it more and more specific. They even added many more metrics so that they could get as much data out of the new process as possible. The additional detail ended up making the process much more difficult to maintain. Eventually, our once-simple process had become too complicated and was almost rendered useless before we could really implement it.

The urge to degrade into complexity is extremely strong, but surprisingly subtle. It is subtle because the “improvements” are typically very minor. Since the improvements, or tweaks, are minor, they initially appear benign. Unfortunately, more and more tweaks are made until the process is overly complicated. Multiple people tend to make minor tweaks and the aggregation of these tweaks causes the process to become overly complicated. It tends to happen so slowly that the process owners do not notice that they have made the process complicated until it is almost too late to do anything about it. I am confident that no one sits around dreaming of ways to make business processes more complex; however, how often have you or your colleagues wondered why some of your processes are just so darn complicated?

The urge to degrade into complexity happens more often than one might think. This phenomenon is not limited to the design of processes. It can occur with almost everything we do. For instance, early in my career I designed and wrote an application to track the status of projects. The application was initially very simple, and it allowed project managers, team members, and the organization to easily get the status of all our projects on demand at any time. Project team members would update their project status within the application, which required less than a minute to do each day, and the application aggregated all the statuses so that anyone could easily discern if the projects were on target. I called the application “PAST,” which was an acronym for “Project and Status Tracker.”

PAST caught on very quickly and became the project tracking tool of choice within my organization. I developed PAST in my spare time and was thrilled that others saw the benefits of it. I was so thrilled that I started adding minor new features to make PAST even better. I added features to allow users to print project statuses in the form of a document. I added features to allow PAST to track more than just projects. Users could track the hours that they worked each week, they could track small tasks, they could track issues reported to the organization, and they could even track calendar appointments. I added alerts so that PAST could alert users of upcoming calendar events or when a project was off target.

These were all good ideas at the time. Within a year, PAST had become so complicated that it was no longer useful to the organization. The cost to maintain it had gone up as well, because a full-time programmer had to be hired to keep it running smoothly. The features were regularly changing as minor tweaks were made. Eventually, we had to decommission PAST because it had become too complicated and costly to use and maintain.

This is a just one example of how we humans tend to degrade into complexity. Many times we degrade into complexity because our intentions are good, and not because we willingly want to make things more complicated. People tend to gravitate toward things that are simple. Unfortunately, in an effort to make improvements, we sometimes make things more complex than they need to be. This is not to imply that we should never try to make improvements. Continuous improvement is essential in order to prevent processes and other systems from becoming disordered over time. The main point here is that one should take extra care to ensure that the improvements made are not unintentionally making the process or system more complicated. Once your organization has implemented a very simple process to govern the work that you do, before changes to it are made, ask yourselves the following questions:

  1. Does your organization have a change-control process in place to ensure that all changes (in the form of change requests) are properly vetted before they are implemented?
  2. What problems will be solved if the change is implemented?Many times team members want to implement a change because it is “nice to have,” or so it seems.
  3. Always ask yourself, is this change absolutely necessary?If the answer is no, then more than likely the change should not be implemented.
  4. If this change or modification to the process is approved to be implemented, are there other current features that can be discontinued within the process?This helps to keep the process from becoming larger than it needs to be and helps to keep things simple.

In conclusion, some effort is required to keep processes simple, or over time they will become complicated. In an effort to increase process clarity, people tend to add more detail. Many times the added detail, while in the short term appears beneficial, will make the process more difficult to maintain and thus, more complicated. Adding process detail where needed is not necessarily a bad thing to do. The organization just needs to be careful not to go overboard.


Dr. Milton Mattox is an Executive Coach, CEO Peer Group Facilitator, Motivational Speaker, Author and Technologist who has worked with some of the world’s most acclaimed companies. An authority in helping CEOs overcome everyday business challenges to achieve the success that they seek, career coach and expert in “all things technology-based,” he continues to practice the leadership techniques and methodologies outlined in his books and articles to successfully increase return on investment for companies, organizations, and individuals seeking to be all that they desire to be in life.