Posted by bob on February 21, 2017


“For every complex problem there is one solution which is simple, neat, and wrong.” 1

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” 2

It is truly human nature to seek out simple solutions to complex problems.  Over-simplifications are often based on tiny observations that carry some vague ring-of-truth until confronted with additional messy, demonstrable facts.

When we study, think, and expose ourselves to all of the information available, we are more likely to see the errors in over-simplified solutions.  Emotion is much easier for persons-with-bad-intent to manipulate than intellect.  Likewise, that human desire for simple solutions might sometimes drive us to emotional, instead of logical choices.

Some complex technical problems can be solved by breaking the problem down to multiple, simpler problems.  We divide the system into smaller sections and solve each problem as independently as possible. 

But some problems are still not so simple and the solution for one feature-problem may begin to break some other feature. 

For example, we might have a mechanical component that keeps breaking during operational testing.  A thicker component might be stronger than a thinner component.  But if we need to control the weight of the assembly, or we have a limited space in which to fit that component, then we cannot keep making this component thicker and thicker without limit.  So maybe we need to change to a stronger-yet-lighter material for this component—but we might find it is too expensive for the final product.

An immature, emotional response might be, “The heck with costs, we are trying to build the best product possible.”  But an experienced designer responds with engineering compromises.  Choosing a slightly stronger material, in a slightly thicker design might achieve the strength needed.  Sometimes we can remove material and costs in surprising ways, while still maintaining the overall strength.  Wood wagon wheels use spokes instead of solid disks.

Simple problems can have simple solutions.  Complex problems deserve complex solutions.  These solutions might be multi-part and probably involve some compromise and some effort to implement.

We need to bring the same flexibility to solving human problems.  Compromise is not a bad thing if it optimizes the results for the largest number of people, without completely breaking the system for any small group of people.

A leader is someone who helps you keep the higher goals within sight, without oversimplifying the challenges you will face reaching those goals.  A charlatan will incite your lower instincts towards declaring, “I don’t care about other people, because I got mine.”  Or worse yet, the charlatan incites you to covet those things belonging to your neighbors.

When you are solving problems, you will often create new problems with your solutions.  You must solve the original problem and the new problems to truly be successful. 

Much of engineering is developing a sense of reasonableness.  You need to understand when a compromise has gone too far in any one direction.  You will need a clear vision of whether your solution is Greater-Than-Or-Equal-To the problem(s).  Compromise and engineering judgement work hand-in-hand towards balancing People, Time, Money, and Bad Results in your product or service.

The same kind of wisdom and experience should also be applied to human problems.


1 If you think you have encountered that quotation before, you are partially correct.  It is a paraphrased version of writing by H.L. Mencken published in the New York Evening Mail in November of 1917.  It was later published in Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series (1920).  What Mencken actually wrote was, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

2 Again, you probably recognize this quote as one attributed to Albert Einstein.  What Einstein actually wrote was, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”  (Emphasis added.)

In this context, we can see that Einstein, speaking as a scientist, is saying that we cannot ignore an inconvenient observation of fact (a single datum) that does not fit our theory.