Reductionism and the Issue of Over Simplification

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Published:  January 18, 2016, Copyright (c) Sandy Elrick


As I search for new insight into life, I find a bit of a dichotomy of thoughts.  On the one hand, I have a career I wish to foster and wish to advance into the next logical stage (information technology – security and data analytics).   On the second hand, I have my personal side which I want to foster and advance (copy writing, authorship, photography).  I believe that balance requires working on both all the time (to varying degrees as you encounter failure and success).  I don’t consider them necessarily mutually exclusive but part of it still seems to not jive.


So what is the not jiving part?  It relates to my ability to focus on more than a few major and a few minor activities in my life.  I prefer to focus on more singular things that bring a whole together.  Life is never so easy that we get to live it exactly how we want all the time.  That being said, the theory of reductionism (introduced in the 1940s) states that we should be able to break complex ideas down to their simple components.  The catch though is that this process, when taken to its logical end means that the simplicity and breakdown can become obscured or distorted when taken too far.


This is somewhat how process and procedure analysis works (another area I am familiar with and enjoy in my professional life).  When you take what appears to be a complex idea and break it down into logical components, you have a working process and/or procedure.  That works, until you discover another, deeper level of breakdown, and another, etc.  Experience has taught me some of the limits (rules) that one should consider when performing process analysis.  What I go back to is that in human terms, this experience is something less quantifiable and indeed dependent on the learnings of others.




The main thrust of my concern comes back.  I perceive that these days, our information culture appears to be bound by a rote reductionism mentality in the pursuit of lowering costs.  We are unlearning some of the key business concepts our society already processed and was passing along in an evolutionary way (mentoring on all levels) in favour of fifteen minutes of success. The result is a spiral into an unattainable goal of finding the next exciting thing all the time.  It sounds like a personal hell.  Like a pyramid scheme, it seems like a good idea until some barrier is reached and an explanation is given which has absolutely no real bearing as a solution to the problem at hand.  You are no longer looking at the real problem.


Some may recognize this barrier as scarcity.  So I ponder why is this happening.  The only logical (and primary) conclusion I have drawn up is that we are literally consuming ourselves and our world in an effort to achieve abundance.  That abundance could be a saving money on a budget, growth in GDP, or something vague like the perception that more is better.


Back to the bait and switch, distraction from what really matters.  Something we tell ourselves to consume our time so we don’t pay attention to the real factors at hand.  Are all types of abundance bad?  Heck no!  The questions are: what do you value in abundance and why are you valuing it?


Good Intentions


Personal scarcity is a frightening thing.  So is communal scarcity.  We appear to tell ourselves that money is the end all be all and that we need to be popular and judge ourselves based on what others think of our success.  We fool ourselves.  This causes disharmony and disruption.


So while we remain ignorant of the day to day and embrace the concept of continual abundance, we pave a road to hell.  Good intentions a positive way forward does not make.  It is a reaction that is so polar that it seems out of adjustment when it is ongoing.  So we struggle within ourselves seeking financial abundance and judgement from others as a means to define our life.  We are distracted from true abundance.


So the question becomes – what are you seeking in abundance in your life?  What are you dedicating your energy to process to make something happen?  I ask these questions to you in almost any vein – personal, professional, or otherwise.





I was speaking to a friend the other day and a recurring theme came up:  How our culture acts less holistically by treating symptoms of a disease versus finding the cure for a disease?  This leads me to consider are we ignoring our community?  Are we ignoring ourselves as individuals?  I think this leads me to contemplate the direct opposite of reductionism.  This fundamentally requires use to use a little faith, to accept that not everything can be reduced to its components and accounted for.  Bring a little humanity back to the table.


So what does this mean to me, to you?  This appears to be a logical extension of being human – to accept that which we cannot quantify and take it on faith.  So why is it so hard to accept this in business?  It is so hard because we are looking at the problem in the wrong way or that we only seek to value business by its financial success (money versus people).


Physician, heal thyself.  One of the core tenets of living.  To understand others and their motivations, you must understand yourself first.  If you need to learn how, reach out to others.  In the end, as people become more aware, business will become better.


The Catch


Do not judge yourself too harshly or for that matter, anyone else.  Business can achieve greatness when its people are free to achieve it in the manner they can best do so.  This mentality goes against a lot of traditional business models, but to use a phrase “more simple can be better”.  Don’t overcomplicate the problem, don’t oversimplify the solution.  I think we need to remember our historical achievements and focus on the guiding principles around why we do what we do on a daily basis.


It is with these things firmly in our mind that we can execute to the fullest.  So when your organization has a major issue to deal with, I think it would be good to embrace the unusual when trying to solve a problem (but don’t take too long at it or you miss the real benefit).