The Adams Complexity Threshold is the point at which something is so complicated it no longer works.

The Gulf oil spill is probably a case of complexity reaching the threshold. It was literally impossible for anyone to know if the oil rig was safe or not. The engineering was too complex. I'm sure management thought it was safe, or hoped it was safe, or hallucinated that it was safe. It wasn't possible to know for sure.

Maybe someday we'll learn there was one person who skipped a safety step, but that's exactly the sort of thing you can't get away with in a less complex world, where everyone understands the whole process and can notice a mistake. It's our nature to blame a specific person for a specific screw-up, but complexity is what guarantees mistakes will happen and won't be caught.

Enron is another case of complexity crossing the threshold. No one really understood what Enron was doing, except for a few crooks, and they intentionally used complexity to conceal their treachery. I lived in California when Enron literally made the lights go out, and even the Governor didn't know why.

The financial meltdown, health care, defense spending, our tax code, problems in the Middle East - you name it. They have all become unsolvable because of their complexity. We want to blame individuals for being stubborn or corrupt or even stupid. But the real enemy is complexity.

Complexity is often a natural outgrowth of success. Man-made complexity is simply a combination of things that we figured out how to do right, one layered on top of the other, until failure is achieved.

Try leaving the house with the family. It used to be as simple as getting in the car and driving away. Lately it has become more complicated than the Normandy invasion. You need cell phones, car chargers, iPods, sunglasses, address for the navigation unit, and sweaters, if not layers. Someone needs a snack, and someone needs an Advil. There's something you need to drop off along the way. Remember to stop at a mailbox, then pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, and get gas. Then remember that the iron might be plugged in, and drive back home to check. Repeat.

Recently I got a very cool Garmin watch/GPS device for running. It can do so many things that the interface is unfathomable to me when considered in the context of my busy life. To be clear, I am completely capable of figuring out how to use the device, given enough time and attention, but the complexity of the rest of my life guarantees that this happy day of understanding will never come. So I wore the watch to a party and asked a friend how to activate the distance tracking function. I'll stop my learning there, since that's the main thing I wanted the device for. I have comics to draw and blog posts to write. No more time for Garmin.

It's not an accident that the recent leaders of China have been trained engineers. They've done a great job in an immensely complicated situation. Engineers are trained to deal with complexity.

I wonder if we should start requiring in our leaders a background that shows they can deal with complexity. Lawyers and engineers have that training. I assume that doctors and economists have what it takes. Ironically, a degree in political science alone is probably a red flag that a person might not be suited for the complexities of holding office. Taking it a step further, if your elected representative majored in English, he's probably relying on reflex, polls, superstition or bribery to make his decisions. Good luck with that.

[On another topic, check out my article for the Wall Street Journal that grew out of this blog. It's getting a lot of attention.]

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+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
Huge kudos for getting this sentence into the Journal:

"Can you justify owning stock in companies that are treating the Earth like a prison pillow with a crayon face?"
Jun 8, 2010
I saw that article in the Journal the other day. Good article.
Jun 8, 2010
I saw this psychological complexity barrier broken yesterday between my wife and Roku. She would never use the Roku because she had to deal with 3 remotes, plus finding the movie she wanted on the computer into the Netflix queue.

Long story short, I found a way to get rid of one remote, and Roku has a new UI that eliminates the computer queuing part of the process, so now she is able to wrap her brain around it and uses Roku all the time.

I wonder if companies realize that their user base could go up an order of magnitude if they just make their products a tiny bit more intuitive? Or that removing a 'feature' can make it more appealing? I personally find it irritating to be looking at the feature list of an audio product and see the words "Can also stream your photos". Instant turn off. I immediately envision multiple menus that I'll have to navigate through to get around the useless photo feature.

I bought a portable radio from Radio Shack once that also had a 'extra base' button, mute button, training timer/stop watch and other functionality that cluttered up the device. It seemed that every time I changed the station without looking, I'd accidentally send it into a mode that would require the manual to get out of. So I took care of those buttons -- with epoxy.

P.S. The morning DJ said you were 53 today, Scott. So HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!
(same age as me)
Jun 8, 2010
I think lack of testing is a second contributor to "black swans." In principle the BP fail safe wasn't much more complicated that the practical joke of a bucket of water balanced on a half open door. At least that's the simplicity management presented to convince even a smart lawyer - only a few months ago - that offshore drilling was essentially risk free.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
Engineers as leaders would only work in a government that is not elected by the public, such as China. Leaders in a democracy need to care about what the people think, and engineers only want to find the best solution to a problem. While this sounds like what people should want, that is not the reality. Most people would rather have someone pretend to care about them and lie to them about solutions that will never work than have someone actually solve their problems. Most people also don't like to be told that they are wrong and why, and engineers are very good at doing that, which would hurt their popularity considerably.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
Alan Greenspan, a rather prominent economist, acknowledged that he failed to deal with a very complex situation:

Also, below I called Mr. Adams an engineer. I apologize for conflating Mr. Adams with Dilbert :(
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
Here we have an engineer assuming that only lawyers, engineers, doctors and economists have what takes to deal with complexity. This strikes me as a gross oversimplification of a complex problem. Follow that to its logical conclusion.
Jun 8, 2010
We tried lawyers in the UK and see the state we are now in, they took the money and ran (and got us into an illegal war, go figure..). Engineers are held in contempt by most of British society so they'll never even get the chance to be elected!
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