Can Too Much Simplicity Really Increase Complexity and Costs?

We live in a world where it seem to become more and more complex every single day, and given that we also have a tendency to over complicate things, we end up find ourselves struggling to make progress because of it.

In response to this ever increasing complexity we constantly hear the call for more simplicity, and the need keep things simple. I myself am a very strong advocate of simplicity, it’s even a key component of my FAST Leadership approach.

However, we need to be very careful when we focus on simplicity that we don’t actually increase complexity instead.

I say this because there is a big difference between simple and easy and sometimes what appears the simplest solutions can be very difficult, and sometimes even impossible to deliver.

US BadgeOne of my favourite examples of this comes US Army.

In a bid to reduce costs and make thing simpler it was decided that they wanted to come up with a single camouflage uniform. This would mean that production costs would be lower because there would only be one uniform to produce.

It would be simpler for the soldiers because now they would only have one uniform to bring with them.


So on the surface this looks like a great idea, and one thats based on simplicity.

There was only one problem, trying to create a single camouflage uniform, one that would work in desert, mountain and jungle terrain, is actually quite a difficult job.

The result was Universal Camouflage Pattern, as can be seen in the image below.

US Army

The goal of the uniform was that it would work everywhere.

Unfortunately, as most people with a sense for fashion will tell you and my wife could definitely tell you, it’s practically impossible to find one colour, or pattern, that will go with everything,

By deciding on one uniform, instead of having different uniforms for the different terrains, they had now increased the difficulty, and consequently made the task more complex as a result of their simplification.

The result was that instead of a uniform that was supposed to work everywhere they ended up with a uniform that worked nowhere!

US Army CamouflageThe project ended up having to be cancelled at a cost of around $5Billion, but not only that  it put the soldiers wearing it at risk as it was ineffective in keeping them hidden from the eyes of their enemies.

In this example, a much simpler approach would have been to create camouflage outfit for each of the different terrains.

It might not have appeared to be a cheaper option than a single outfit, but given thats extremely difficult to achieve, it’s much cheaper when you factor in the costs of failure, which in this case was $5Billon.

A one size fits all approach is not a bad approach to take to when we look to simplify things and to look reduce costs, and there have been excellent results with that approach, just look at SouthWest Airlines, but it’s not a solution that works everywhere.

So when we look to simplify, we need to be sure that we haven’t come up with a solution which on the surface appears simpler, but underneath we have increased complexity to the point at which it’s either too expensive or impossible to create our simples solution.


Gordon Tredgold

#Leadership Principles