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Gartner to IT: Complexity Isn't All Bad

Complexity for complexity's sake is never a good thing, but complexity itself isn't always a bad thing. A modern MRI machine, for example, is much more complex than an X-ray machine, but the former device is also a vastly superior diagnostic tool.

Complexity definitely has its downside: It slows things down, introduces the opportunity for mistakes, costs more and generally makes it harder to see the forest for the trees. But complexity also has an upside: It can enhance functionality; increase personal control and even improve reliability, quality and reaction time.

It's that upside that many modern IT managers miss, say Gartner analysts Colleen Young and Ray Paquet.

"If we really want to get a handle on complexity," Young says, "we have to see that complexity is not simply a bad thing, to be reduced wherever possible."

One of the reasons complexity produces so much anxiety is that it’s cyclical, Young says. The typical cycle is one of growing complexity followed by simplification, but it can also go the other way: a leading-edge technology is introduced, gets refined over time, and becomes simpler and easier to use. Computers themselves are an obvious example of that pattern, Young points out.

"I don’t think my 73-year-old father could have achieved much with ENIAC," she says, "but he’s quite at home with a PC."

Paquet suggests that the value of complexity might be conceptualized as a bell curve, with the value declining as the complexity increases, until a tipping point is reached and that ratio shifts in the other direction. It's not a perfect model, he admits, but most IT professionals rarely consider the far side of that curve.

"It’s really a matter of considering each potential change in respect to the relationship between complexity and value," Paquet says.

Instead of clinging to a rigid policy of avoiding complexity, the analysts say, IT managers need to develop a framework for determining its value, for weighing its potential risks against its potential benefits. Such a framework would allow companies to, among other things:

  • Evaluate every proposed complication or added element to determine whether it has a positive return on complexity.
  • Evaluate this change over a lifecycle, not just at a single point in time.
  • Consider adding complexity to increase target benefits when current levels of those attributes are below par.

“Conquering complexity can’t be seen as just a matter of reducing it, or managing it away,” says Paquet. “We also have to confront the challenge of increasing our capacity—as individuals and businesses—to accommodate complexity.”

"The bottom line," Young adds, is that a mantra of 'keep it simple' is inadequate for the realities of life."

The two analysts examined the opportunities and challenges of complexity during their opening keynote presentation at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo (May 15-19). The event drew an estimated 3,000 attendees to San Francisco’s Moscone Center West, and featured more than 150 analysts and hundreds of exhibitors, according to organizers.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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