Avoid The Complexity Trap

A marble rolls down a ramp until it triggers a spring that lights a match, which, in turn, ignites a candle. The heat from the candle inflates a balloon, which expands until it pops. The burst of the balloon moves a lever that lifts a barrier holding back a live mouse. The now-freed mouse heads down a small passageway to access a piece of cheese.

As the mouse grabs the cheese, the weight of his foot triggers a string to pull down on a counter-weight, which then triggers a golf ball to roll down a track, hit a pendulum, which, in turn, strikes the “on” switch of a coffeemaker. Now you can enjoy a freshly brewed cup. Easy!

We’ve all seen these devices in cartoons and on TV. The fanciful contraptions are known as Rube Goldberg machines, paying homage to the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Reuben (Rube) Goldberg (1883-1970). Goldberg was well known for drawing complex and convoluted contraptions that performed simple tasks, such as turning a page, opening a door, or using a napkin.

These wacky contraptions are so enthralling, that the board game Mousetrap was crafted in their likeness. There are hundreds of officially sanctioned Rube Goldberg Machine competitions held around the world each year. Honda even made a brilliant TV commercial using such a device. We are fascinated with transforming the simple into the wildly complex.

As someone who has spent his whole career building start-up companies and working with entrepreneurs, I can tell you that this particular whimsy can actually become a dangerous trap. Fancying ourselves as ‘groundbreaking innovators,’ we have a habit of adding complexity to products, business problems, team dynamics, and pretty much anything we can get our hands on. Frankly, many of us in the business world suffer from Rube Goldberg Syndrome.

The best of the best, however, do the opposite. They find the easy way to solve challenges rather than injecting unnecessary complexity. Instead of fighting incredibly hard to get customers to buy something they don’t want, why not offer something that’s in high demand? Instead of building a website with technical wizardry that requires a PhD to navigate, why not make it 6-year-old simple?

In your own business, life, family, and community, you are constantly facing difficult challenges. Resist the instinct to muck up an otherwise simple solution.

Yes, the road less traveled can make all the difference, but you don’t win extra points for taking a dirt road instead of the freeway. Actually solving a problem, closing the deal, or driving meaningful results are far more rewarding than falling short in an elegant manner.

In the words of legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus, “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”