Good complexity leads to greater convenience, choice and options. Bad complexity leads to frustration, wasted time and wasted money.
Dimitris is a small business owner in Greece. According to a TIME article, he estimates he has paid "about a fifth of his revenue in bribes -- to tax collectors, health inspectors, police and other officials". Small firms "are essentially obligated to conduct business this way," he says. "There are so many legal barriers to conducting business that they'll shut you down otherwise."
The Mystery of Capital by Hernando De Soto (see Amazon.com) is one of the most impressive books I have ever read. In it, De Soto comes up with a variety of reasons as to why some countries succeed while others fail. A core reason is corrupt, complex bureaucracy. The government acts as a parasite. It forces you to go through a whole host of unnecessary and complex steps if you want do anything.
If you want to buy land, set up a company, renew your driver's license, whatever, you will be forced to go through step after complex step. This is bad complexity and it exists so that you will require 'advice' from the corrupt official. Of course, a nice bribe will allow the official to ignore all these unnecessary steps, but then you're in their trap because they can force you to follow the letter of the law if they want to.
Many organizations have enemies within. Departments and divisions care only for themselves. They will introduce complexity that makes the organization as a whole more dependent on them. In fact, the way modern organizations are structured rewards bad complexity.
Examples of bad complexity can be seen everywhere. Marketers and communicators don't care if they make a website more difficult to navigate once they can push their message. Programmers will add more features to a product, not because these features are needed, but because new features show that the programmers have been doing something. Legal people don't want you to understand legal documents because that would diminish their importance.
Bad complexity creates dependence. Good complexity creates independence.
One of the things the Web reflects is a movement away from the production of products to the delivery of services. In a world of production the thing itself often dominates, but in a world of service the satisfaction of the customer dominates. In other words, in a service-driven world, the measure of success is not what you have produced, but rather how satisfied your customer is.
A service culture hates bad complexity. But we have a long way to go. I recently spoke to a manager of a website and told them there was a problem with one of their customer's top tasks. "That's not my problem," he replied. "That's an application. The IT department look after that."
Web teams need to take responsibility for the customer's experience on their website. But that's a major challenge because the organization is often working against the web team. Websites are often difficult to search and confusing to navigate -- bad complexity -- because the organizational units care more about themselves than their customers.
At the root of the problem is the fact that senior management encourages and rewards this bad complexity behavior by setting organization department/unit-based objectives, rather than customer satisfaction and task completion-based objectives.