Problems often involve complex solutions, yet history tells us that breakthrough ideas come from our ability to question simple things.
I have built many highly complex novel algorithms for applications such as removing noise from cellular signals, accelerating mobile encryption and putting "automatic lending" on the blockchain. Complexity has its place. Some problems are just hard, messy and - yes - complicated.
What is the hardest subject you can think of?
Invariably, most folks will think of something related to science, and quite rightly. Whilst we like to eulogize fashionable entrepreneurial heroes like Musk, Jobs et al, our lives are more tangibly impacted by the work of scientists, most of whom we will never here from.
Who invented the MRI scanner? Who invented the flu vaccine? Who invented the combustion engine?
For that matter, who invented the iPhone? Most of the technology comes from places outside of Apple.
But complexity is often a feature of the implementation, not the fundamental nature of the problem. Science, although it involves highly complex ideas and procedures, is often driven by simplicity.
Much of our inventive history is a quest to escape our biology. We came into the world by a process of evolution that shaped our brains to do things that we can't remember doing, like running through the wilderness.
Along the way, we encountered things that we accepted as just the way they are, like objects, when free of any visible support, tend to fall to the ground.
For centuries, this simple occurrence was explained by Aristotle's account that objects have a natural place to which they want to return. In the case of steam, it rises to its natural place in the clouds. In the case of an apple, it falls to reside where it belongs (in order to rot and return to the earth): on the ground.
Newton allowed himself to be puzzled by this simple occurrence. In his account of the world, objects moved only under the influence of forces. If this is true, which he believed it to be, then the only answer, to be consistent with his laws, is that it must be subject to a force: a simple explanation. The complexity, of course, is that the force is invisible. This he could not explain, and no one has since.
Allowing one's self to be puzzled by simple things is the powering force of science and innovation. Indeed, it is the only way that science progresses. We like to think that scientific progress is thanks to the so-called scientific method. This is not how discovery happens. It is only confirmed or denied by the method.
Indeed, others more loftier myself, like Max Planck, have argued that science only really progresses "one funeral at a time", by which he means that we only manage to shed incorrect ideas once the scientist holding the idea dies and makes room new ideas. Let us not forget that for all of his genius, Einstein refused to accept much of the quantum account of the universe and possibly held up physics as a result.
Returning to gravity, we now readily accept the presence and power of invisible things, like the radio signals tethering our mobile phones. And so it is easier to imagine ideas that involve invisibility.
That said, it might well be that we haven't understood invisibility at all and it is blinding us to new explanations: simple ones.
In my work as a technologist, the progress of innovative ideas follows a similar path of discovery to science, even though CxOs often use the word "science" in a pejorative sense: "We don't want to pay for science experiments."
Allowing one's self to be puzzled by simple things reveals many possibilities. For example, when I was asked by Art.com to find new ways to innovate with the online sale of wall decor (art) I found that people could not really describe the kind of art they wanted, but could say: "I know it when I see it."
We can all relate to this simple idea, but it turns out to be deeply puzzling with even a superficial level of scrutiny. Indeed, why we like anything is, on some levels, a mystery.
Innovation often flows when we allow ourselves to be puzzled by such simple things and then ask "Why" questions instead of accepting conventional explanations. A favorite example of mine is how Parker Pens only increased sales once they realized that their pens had higher utility as gifts than they did as writing instruments. But the consultant who suggested this new way of seeing was initially ridiculed for thinking along such lines instead of "pen technology" complexities, whatever they might have been.
That consultant allowed himself to be puzzled by a very simple thing: Why do people buy nice pens?
But there is a deeper force at work inside of companies that makes seeing simple things even harder. It is the "cult of the expert" disease whereby we compete to seem like experts even if we are not. The irony is that folks who are truly expert tend to realize how little they know, not how much. Imposter syndrome is common amongst the highly erudite, not the ignorant.
In competitive environments where expertise is often the currency of exchange, versus the art of getting results, it can be hard to ask simple questions. The tendency is to want to appear current and trendy with "advanced" ideas, so much so that the mere notion of looking for simple answers is dismissed. Again, the irony is this is where true experts often find the best answers.
Of course, this problem is exacerbated by the common management tool of shunning simple questions. The number of techniques for doing so are too many to mention, but mostly amount to the same thing: "I say so."
But if we require any evidence that so-called experts can really get it wrong, then we need look no further than the lofty realms of the Nasa rocket scientists. The fabled story of how a billion-dollar satellite project failed is staggering: one team measured in inches whilst the other in centimeters. Could it get any simpler?