We’ve all told ourselves to “keep it simple” but, according to performance studies, only a few of us really pull it off. Those who do, stand out, get top jobs, win awards, get promoted or become well known in their field.

That’s according to large scale studies of top performers across fields. “Successful” people tend to avoid what researcher Morten T. Hansen calls the Complexity Trap.

To explain that pitfall, consider this famous story.

A tale of two expeditions

The 1911 race to the South Pole provides a cautionary tale about the Complexity Trap. Two teams of adventurers, one from Norway, one from the UK, competed to be the first humans (that we know of) to reach the frigid bottom of the Earth.

The Norwegian team shot across the 800-mile+ ice sheet, enduring blizzards, -60 degree chills and a 10,000 foot climb to arrive, victorious, at the pole.

Their British competitors arrived 34 days later, in tatters. Unfortunately, they then perished during their return trip—losing every single person in their party.

What happened? Why did one team grind their way to victory, suffering no human casualties, while the other met with complete ruin?

The answer may come down to the two team leaders, Roald Amundsen (Norway) and Captain Robert Falcon Scott (UK), who took very different approaches to their expeditions.

The differences between the winning and losing teams may surprise you.

Amundsen’s successful setup looked like this:

  • Only 19 men
  • One small ship
  • Half their competitor’s budget
  • One form of land transportation: a dog sled team

Scott’s ill-fated operation looked like this:

  • 65 men
  • Multiple, large ships
  • Twice their competitor’s budget
  • Multiple land transportation options including dogs, motor sledges and ponies

In hindsight, Scott’s group—and plan—were more complex, less focused, less trained and far less disciplined than Amundsen’s. Scott tried to build in several backup systems and brought more gear and men than he could manage.

In contrast, Amundsen brought a few men and some incredible dogs. The dogs could have failed but they didn’t.

The reason those canine teammates performed brilliantly was that Amundsen had spent two years obsessing over them. He apprenticed with a native tribe to learn about dog breeds, care, training and behavior. He then handpicked the most powerful and resilient dogs available and the best dog trainer in the world.

That guy didn’t want any part of the project, by the way. And Amundsen could have shrugged his shoulders at that rejection and picked someone else. But he didn’t. He kept after that guy until he finally relented and led the dog team.

Meanwhile, poor Captain Scott was dealing with the wrong dog breed, poor training and a bunch of ponies that couldn’t handle cold.

Of course, it’s just one anecdotal tale. But there are key lessons here, according to researchers.

How we fall for complexity

Projects become complicated and less efficient, according to Hansen, when we make these three common mistakes:

  • Rush through the details
  • Skip the background research and glean only cursory knowledge of our task
  • Fail to practice and refine a skillset

Avoid the Complexity Trap with these research-backed tips

  • Do less: Take on fewer tasks and then obsess over the details
  • Edit: Cut down on the number of moving parts, like too many cooks in the kitchen
  • Study: Discover everything about your subject and the task at hand
  • Iterate: Learn from each effort, collecting feedback as you go, in order to sharpen your skills
  • Create quality: Deliver the highest quality version of your work possible

There you have it. Now go forth and conquer, simply.

Your friends at CloudBase Services

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Author: CloudBase Services