It’s Complicated

It is very complicated.

It can be anything. It can be a program, a script, a process, an integration or any other situation, problem or context you may confront in your day.

Do not let someone trick you.  Do not confuse complicated with complex.  Things can be complex without being complicated.  When people try to complicate things, they are masking their root motivations.

Complicate – make something more difficult or confusing by causing it to be more complex

Complex – consisting of many different and connected parts

As a product manager, if you hear these words, or some variation of them, alarm bells should go off and you should proceed with caution.   Complexity is a weasel word that, in my experience, is too often used to put up blockers, protect one’s “turf,” or undermine collaboration.

At the most basic level, when you hear this, the person who is telling you all about how complex the issue is, is really just trying to prevent you from understanding what’s going on. There can be many reasons for not wanting you to understand what’s going on, but none of them are ultimately acceptable. The inability to understand is crippling to a PM. After hearing this, and since you’re the ultimate, truth-seeking PM, you need to roll up your sleeves and get to the bottom of the situation. The reality is that it’s going to be messy, but probably not for the reasons you are being told that “it’s complicated.”

There are many reasons someone may be saying something is complicated, but they are all basically attempting to achieve one thing – keep you out. The motivations for keeping you out may vary, and determining the motivations should help guide your approach to breaking through the barriers being put up between you and understanding.

  1. The Blocker – The messenger is trying to keep you out of their business. They don’t want to work with you, plain and simple. The key to this situation is to try and understand why they don’t want to work with YOU. Maybe you’re seen as a threat, you don’t have a relationship, the person doesn’t trust you – maybe they’re just an asshole. Regardless, this person is throwing up blockers to working with you and you need to determine how to establish a trust with that individual to help them open up.
  1. The Cover-up – Whatever “it” is, it is a mess. Creating an overwhelming sense of complexity masks what is going on under the surface and often scares people from digging into the details. This situation is fairly straightforward to identify – there will be lots of generalities thrown around about all the things they need to do. If you find yourself scratching your head because you don’t understand what’s so complicated about the situation they’re describing. Combat this by methodically drilling into the situation with increasingly specific questions – do not assume anything – make the person explain specifics. When they try to evade it, keep pushing.
  1. The Ego – The person is so egotistical that they believe there can’t be any way that anyone else could understand the situation. This situation is pretty easy – just stroke their ego (but be careful not to over-do it and make it worse in the future) and let the person show you how smart they are by digging into the details.
  1. The Indispensible – Making a task seem so daunting will often lead to a false sense of security. The messenger is attempting to make them seem indispensible. This is a tough one. This person is probably a bit insecure about their position within the company. Try to find something where you can help them gain an additional sense of security, perhaps from something completely unrelated, that you can ‘barter’ for their compliance in getting you up to speed on the real topic of interest.
  1. The Complex – It’s really just that simple (haha- get it) – it is actually something with a significant complexity. Remember, there is a difference between complication and complexity.

Now, with all of that said, it’s possible that you are facing a situation where a little bit of each situation is in play. That makes it complicated, doesn’t it! The only way to get to the bottom of the situation is to roll up your sleeves and get into the nitty gritty details and find out for yourself.

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