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Do You Fall Prey to Oversimplification?

Issue 147, February 15, 2024

We all do it.  We oversimplify when it suits us or when we believe that is what our audience wants to hear. In business, we have been programmed not to share too many financial details and just report the high-level numbers. Or not get all techy; talk in plain English. Avoid all those legal terms that make heads spin. Can’t you just say that a different way? Add to that programming the urban myth that human beings hate to read anything too complicated; get to the point quickly.

Separate But Equal

A behavioral truth is that ultimately each of us seeks to conserve our energy and take the easiest path, which falls into the temptation to oversimplify. After all, deep diving into every issue, problem, and solution comes with the risk that everyone around the table will take a short snooze. We believe that a few important bullet points and the most concise communication of information will be a crowd-pleaser. If we get exhausted from “too much information,” we believe everyone will too. But those shouldn’t be excuses.

Oversimplification has consequences. Consider that we are the sum of our individual parts (think life experiences, familial ties, even our religious beliefs and related values) and we all don’t bring the same knowledge, experience and understanding to the table. At best, each of us has only a sliver of shared knowledge and understanding with others, perhaps based on the experience of working together, being on the same team, or focused on the same project.

It’s likely that we each serve a different role and have a separate set of responsibilities that set the foundation of how we see and think. Perhaps one team member is a technical lead spending her day in code while another team member is focused on sales and spends his day finding new ways to reach prospective customers. They may have the same religious beliefs, perhaps the same number of children, or even live in the same neighborhood, but that is where the shared experience stops. So, what happens? We oversimplify given our commonalities in the hope of believing we have a true shared understanding. That assumption is very likely to fail.

Glossing Over

What happens when we oversimplify? We are likely to miss the point. Here’s an example.  During the pandemic, we were classified into essential and nonessential workers.  The narrative at the time was that the essentials were our lifelines.  The everyday heroes we acknowledged at 7:00 every evening. They got other essentials to work, 24/7.  They checked us out at the grocery stores. They helped us find replenishment provisions at the big-box stores. But in a realistic, unvarnished, non-oversimplified definition, essentials were expendables.  They were the most at risk of getting sick and dying, not the rest of us who were safely holed up in our homes behind lock and key.

Here’s a more recent example. Many believe that AI in all its manifestations is going to take over our lives. In a conversation at the World Science Festival between theoretical physicist Brian Greene and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, AI was un-oversimplified as an iterative system constructed by humans enabling human connection – not an entity.  They stated that the more tech we create, the more accessibility we have. Agree or not, the main point they make is that AI is not itself an independent agent with the ability to think its way across the information gaps within its programming. Lanier suggests thinking of AI as a forest of towers – tons of them. But it can’t jump from tower to tower to draw conclusions. By definition it is a siloed, vertical system.

This concept is not explained in most of the articles about AI. Input limitation permeates many of the systems we use across our organizations and our society. Facial recognition (as we wrote in The Truth About Transformation) is one example. If only Caucasian or Asian image data is input, then the system believes those are the only faces in the world and cannot recognize other ethnicities. In the same way, our business intelligence tools are limited by the data that is shared in its databases. In many ways, we are at risk of oversimplifying the systems that we rely upon to make decisions for us or help us do our work.

Oversimplification Myths

There are plenty of memes we have lived with across generations, often defining who we are and our relationships, both professionally and personally:

  • Money buys happiness
  • Your word is your bond
  • To succeed, others must fail
  • Age before beauty
  • History repeats itself
  • The buck stops here
  • We have no choice
  • Correlation is causation

Beyond the cliches, oversimplification leads to misunderstanding. With a lack of knowledge about the real issues, considering our innate biases, and our habit of filling in the blanks where we find gaps, oversimplifying may take us completely off base. When the mind identifies a gap (resulting from a lack of information or someone oversimplifying), it fills that gap with what it thinks should be there. It strives for a level of completion but in the process, it doesn’t always evaluate all the facts. Instead, the mind seeks what is “good enough” to fill the gap and complete a comfortable pattern of recognition.

But watch out! The mind can play tricks on us and lead us to believe something is real (factual or truth) when it is not. Consider our current political discourse where words are intentionally chosen to communicate an ideology and repeated with the intent to sway us and make us believe one thing or another. This glossing over of comprehensive, relevant information can have consequences that lead us to draw the wrong conclusions or make faulty decisions.

The Warp Speed of Information

Oversimplification is also the collateral damage of living and working in an information age that moves at lightning speed, feeding attention-deficit audiences the topline or the headline of any given issue.  That’s how we have learned to market and promote our brand and services, bowing to the dictates of SEO and digital benchmarks that earn us engagement. The information we share in the hope that our customers will respond, and buy is often oversimplified, which is a disservice to the products we are selling. And when it comes to imagery, the advertising and marketing community tends to select visual representations that are oversimplified cliches.  Think of the imagery your own organization uses to market and promote your services, events, and products.

Taking a sidestep here, oversimplification is technically reducing complexity to such a degree that a distorted impression is given ( Our business and marketing challenges are not so simple. They are often layered with complexity. As we always say, critical thinking is your primary tool, or weapon, to avoid the dangers of oversimplification.

A trend across marketing (and communications) is to create short bursts of written copy (bullets seem to be the norm now) to current and prospective customers. We assume they don’t want to read and making them read too much will not lead to the desired action. So, that copywriter is making consequential assumptions about the problems prospective customers may need to solve.  Further, the writer assumes that the audience knows the company and its products. Then when organizations see poor performance from their marketing and communications, they need to look no further than the messaging.

Understanding the nuances of a problem/situation or a solution leads to better results.  Of course, you can go down rabbit holes and strangle in the weeds of subtleties. But it is important to not gloss over the true issue and related details in the spirit of expediency and oversimplification.

Oversimplification Risk

Imagine you are updating a licensing certification course study guide for structural engineers. The material in the guide has been updated over the decades, but never holistically deconstructed to ensure that engineers who are beginning their careers, seasoned veterans who are recertifying, and others who are honing their skills are all well served.  The content has been oversimplified assuming  that everyone has already mastered the basics via education or real-world work experience. This scenario could lead learners who depend on the study guide to wind up failing their certification exam. A poor outcome (stemming from oversimplification and a laundry list of assumptions) could reflect badly on your organization. What we are driving at here is not to make assumptions. Do not oversimplify unless you ensure that the audience, those around the table or even in a one-to-one conversation, share similar knowledge and experience with you.

Some in the tech community are proponents of  Ray Kurtzweil’s vision of singularity. “A singularity in technology would be a situation where computer programs become so advanced that AI transcends human intelligence, potentially erasing the boundary between humanity and computers”(TechTarget). Granted Kurtzweil is a public advocate for the futurist and transhumanist movements and co-founder of the Singularity University, but if we go back to Greene and Lanier, not so fast. AI is not an independent entity. However, this oversimplification of an enormously complex vision of the future sells doomsday books, movies, and news. Even singularity is subject to oversimplification.

The Antidotes to Oversimplification

We have extensive experience as industry observers and our work in academia with the shortfalls of oversimplification.  As a result, we are codifying some of the most critical learnings we have gleaned over the years that can prevent overgeneralizations. We encourage you to add your own and without simplifying, make them maxims, or additions to our 15 golden rules!

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Admit you don’t know what you don’t know
  3. There are no wrong questions
  4. Don’t make assumptions
  5. Respect the context
  6. Face your personal biases and edit them out of your communications
  7. Practice humility
  8. Identify the real problem
  9. Don’t mistake the success of the past as a predictor of the future
  10. Take your time
  11. The devil is always in the details
  12. Take the long view
  13. One size does not fit all
  14. Don’t ignore the outliers
  15. Balance logic with intuition

In summary, oversimplification makes assumptions that have consequences. If one is given overly simplified information with the expectation of making a good decision, perhaps even a critical decision, the result may be misinformed and possibly lead to unintended consequences.

The hazard of oversimplification is also our assumption that people know what we are talking about. By taking a reductionist stance, we are potentially setting ourselves up for solving problems with blinders on. That, especially in the digital era, is a death knell for success.

Get “The Truth about Transformation”

The Truth about Transformation Book Cover ImageThe 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail?  They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor.  We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.

Order your copy today and let us know what you think!

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