How to make the complex simple

What happens when well-educated and experienced professionals get stuck in a “know it all” mindset? They become technical experts with their heads so full of stuff that it's impossible to work with them.

The biggest challenge for the broader executive and management profession is shifting people who are deeply functional experts into ‘learn-it-alls’ who are open to new ways of learning and working across and outside their organisation.

This article outlines some steps for technical experts to become teachers. After all, if Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman could explain black holes to a 10-year-old, there is hope for technical experts across the country.

In order to teach, you must first learn.

The IP that goes home at night

Many people hold management positions on the strength of their technical knowledge.

The good ones know it's their job to transfer what’s inside their heads to others so they can properly get on with the job of leading.

One of those reasons technical experts struggle is they can't actually explain what they do. It's too complicated or it will take too long to do so. They argue by the time they teach someone they could have done the task in half that time.

Besides, the process is probably so over-complicated that no one-one has had the time to deal with it. So nothing ever changes.

The value of a technical expert is the ability to communicate knowledge to others. The people they serve will admire and appreciate them for it. People always place more value on being taught rather than told.

To the technical expert, it seems easier to keep doing it their way.

The illusion of communication

Many leaders and consultants often struggle to explain complex concepts. Many do it deliberately to create a power imbalance.

When presented with complexity, confused employees walk away assuming:

  • the “expert” is either correct

  • they do what they think they should be doing

  • feel like they are “baffled by the science” and fearful to ask a questions

Here we have the illusion of communication - just because you explained it doesn’t mean they “got it”.

It’s a frequent failure of translating intentions into actions.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw

Communication is the essential art of encoding a message so it can be effectively decoded at the other end. There are a few steps involved in processing a received message, so it's really important the communicator has their ducks in a row.

So now we find ourselves in a world where up-skilling and re-skilling will be critical to leading others, working our way through messy uncertainty and also find fulfilling work.

How to learn something useful

Here’s the deal:

If you cannot describe an idea or concept in simple terms, then you do not understand it well enough.

It’s on you. As a leader, it’s your job to be the expert communicator.

We often make incorrect assumptions about the cognitive ability of the person sitting opposite us or the team in front of us. And, besides, we do tend to over-complicate things occasionally.

To address this universal problem in education, Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman developed the Feynman Technique. Using his technique, Richard Feynman could explain mathematically dense concepts in quantum physics using everyday language and analogies.

The Feynman Technique is a mental model that helps you teach someone else a complex topic in simple terms, so that:

  1. you retain what you learned,

  2. you deepen your understanding, and

  3. you can explain it to a child.

The Feynman Technique

Richard Feynman’s four steps to learning:

  1. Pick a topic that’s of interest. Research it. Write down everything you learn on one A3 page using bullet points and simple diagrams.

  2. Pretend you are teaching your chosen topic to a child. How could you explain a complex idea in simple terms? Practice your explanations on someone who knows nothing about your topic.

  3. Identify any gaps in your knowledge. Revisit your problem areas by undertaking more research.

  4. Simplify concepts and find useful analogies to strengthen your understanding and ability to communicate complexity.

How to stand apart as a leader

Your ability to translate complex concepts and ideas into simple terms will stand you apart as a leader and a communicator.

Think about the best leaders you've worked with.

Take a complex concept in your workplace, learn it, and be able to teach it to a child using these techniques.

Let's get to work!

by Bruce Mullan

PS Access to information (knowledge) has never been easier. Right now, we’ve got plenty of opportunities to learn online, much of it freely available, and you can google almost any topic, book summaries are everywhere and we all wished we had Wikipedia back in the eighties.

You’ve got plenty of opportunities to learn online, much of it freely available, and you can google almost any topic. We live in the information age after all. Here are 450 Ivy League online courses you can take online now for free.