A column by NYT’s Nicholas Kristof touched a nerve in the academy, when he suggested that academics had “walled themselves off”.

Reaction from the academy is neatly summarized in this Harvard Press blog post.

In my own view, both sides have it right. Our challenge is to distinguish the simplistic from the simple.

The simplistic refuses to embrace complexity. It’s bumper sticker thinking. This disease has overtaken much of our politics and squeezed out our capacity for compromise.

The simple, on the other hand, embraces complexity and seeks the clarity that lies on the other side. (Think E=MC2).

Sadly, too many academics get caught in the world of the complex, unable to find a path out. Language is a prime culprit. As Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr. noted in an essay written in 1867,

I would never use a long word, even, where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who ‘ligate’ arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well.

We desperately need the hard work of plowing through the complexity to reach the simplicity on the other side.

Here’s why.

Simplicity is critical if we wish to influence the design and guidance of the networks comprising human communities. Simple rules guide the development of complexity.

For an interesting take on this insight, take a look at how robots can develop complex structures from simple rules.

Or, in the second video, how complex patterns of animal behavior emerge from simple rules.

This insight lies at the heart of Strategic Doing.

The tricky part, of course, is that uncovering these simple rules is not so simple. In fact, it’s really hard work.

(My own situation illustrates the point. I started down the path of Strategic Doing in 1993 in Oklahoma City. We are just now at the point of being able to scale this discipline for accelerated collaboration and set the stage for a national impact.)

In the academy, it is not enough to move past the simplistic into the complex. If we hope to make an impact, we need to dig still further to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Image credit: marsil / 123RF Stock Photo

Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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