2 - Simplification is a tool and a trap

Guarding against fooling ourselves

As humans trying to make sense of our world, and in some cases trying to do that together, we naturally want to have ways of helping us orient; ways of interpret, and create order from the chaos. We create simplification and categorization mechanisms that help us navigate not only for ourselves but navigate with each other.

Simplification and categorization certainly help with making connections, developing shared understanding, and sensemaking with others (to some degree). In some cases though simplification and categorization can actually be an anti-pattern to sense making and to get into the outcomes that you really want.

For example, I could simplify the description of rocket launching into space as “A controlled explosion at the bottom of a metal tube that provides enough thrust to escape our atmosphere.” and while that’s correct at a certain level, I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that.

Most recently I've noticed that there's a want to simplify and create categories in my work. It’s out of a desire to "go faster and not waste people's time" which if you can create a series of categorizations and simplifications that still communicate the right level of detail, and are interpreted by the other individual without fail, this probably works. That's a pretty tall order once you reach even a bit of complexity. Why?

First, language is messy. Almost everyone has a time where they were using some words, describing some experience or expectation, and thought that people were coming along with them, only to later discover that the words meant different things to the receiver. Language is based somewhat in common definitions, but even in this case, words can have multiple meanings. Then there is the greater part, which is interpreting in context by people.

Second, people are messy, they aren't computers, and are understanding of the world is messy, and the way that I come to my understanding of the world is different than yours. The way we think about words and receive messaged is different because of our experiences.

There’s a lot of nuance in those two things, and we can easily fall into a trap of ignoring the nuances of language and people if we aren’t careful.

We have to take time to make sure that we have clarity and alignment about how we are interpreting the world we're experiencing. If those tools that we have like categorization and simplification are overused or over-relied upon, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we can solve all of those problems, and bypass the necessary time for sensemaking and developing a shared understanding together.

We need to be careful when it comes to things like complex topics, that we don't oversimplify or over-categorize to the point where we fool ourselves or miss key details or key information that help us getting to our outcomes. We need to take the time to make sure that we orient together about the level and detail that we're talking about something, and the level of shared understanding that needs to be developed to be able to be successful in getting to our outcomes.

We still need to spend the time to work to develop shared understanding, using those tools for orientation, and understanding they are imperfect. We also need to guard against fooling ourselves into oversimplifying or misalignment around categorization. When we see ourselves slipping into the trap, we have to be alert and call it out. We have to jump away from the trap, and acknowledge that some topics and activities require more time and effort because oversimplifying and murky categorization can lead us to tricking ourselves down unwanted paths.