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Volume 19, Issue 16;   April 17, 2019: Gratuitous Complexity as a Type III Error

Gratuitous Complexity as a Type III Error

by

Last updated: July 2, 2019

Some of the technological assets we build — whether hardware, software, or procedures — are gratuitously complex. That's an error, but an error of a special kind: it can be the correct solution to the wrong problem.
Prototypes of President Trump's "border wall."

Prototypes of President Trump's "border wall." Photo by Mani Albrecht, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs, Visual Communications Division.

As I've noted in an earlier edition, statisticians identified Type I and Type II errors about 70 years ago. Briefly, a Type I error is a false positive and a Type II error is a false negative. The concept of Type III errors is a generalization of these first two. The approach I favor is that of Raiffa [Raiffa 1968], who identified Type III errors as those errors in which one solves the wrong problem correctly. So, for example, building walls and fences to stop the flow into Nation A of refugees fleeing the violence of drug cartels in Nation B is a Type III error, because the problem isn't the flow of refugees into Nation A; rather, the problem is the violence of drug cartels in Nation B.

Gratuitous complexity in the design of technological products or technological infrastructure can also be a Type III error. By gratuitous I mean unwarranted by the application, or lacking justification in terms of the needs of those who use the asset. That is, a gratuitously complex system is one that could be replaced by a simpler design that would meet all present or near-term needs of stakeholders.

What makes gratuitous complexity a Type III error is that it doesn't usually arise by accident. That is, engineers and designers don't run around dreaming up complex designs because they couldn't think of how to meet the need more simply. While it's true that achieving elegant simplicity does require significant and intentional effort, there is a wide gap between elegant simplicity and gratuitous complexity. When a gratuitously complex system is proposed as a solution, something more than failure to achieve elegance is afoot. It's possible — even likely — that the proposed design is intended to solve problems other than the stated system requirements. Below is a little catalog of the problems gratuitous complexity might be intended to solve.

Boredom
People do get People do get bored from time to
time, especially when the work
they do seems repetitive and dated
bored from time to time, especially when the work they do seems repetitive and dated. To make things more interesting, engineers might redefine the problem they're solving in such a way that a more complex solution is required. From the perspective of the engineers, gratuitous complexity is solving the boredom problem, not the user's problem.
Political advantage
One can gain political advantage by becoming one of the few people who can deal with the complexity of the system under construction. But that works only if the system complexity crosses a threshold that's high enough. Gratuitous complexity can be the solution to political weakness.
Inability to shape strategy
Some technologists might have argued for a shift in organizational strategy, but failed to persuade decision makers to adopt it. By creating systems that meet the needs of the strategy they advocate, they can reduce the resources required to adopt the rejected strategy, which can make a future adoption decision more attractive. The engineer or designer is thus using gratuitous complexity to solve the problem of inadequate influence on organizational strategy.
Learning and practice
Some technologists use their task assignments to meet personal learning and practice objectives. To accomplish this, they must sometimes add complexity to what they construct to meet their personal needs, rather than the needs of the asset's stakeholders. Their work then demonstrates their grasp of current technology trends. If this mechanism occurs with significant frequency, it's possible that the employer's objectives are outdated, and this phenomenon could be interpreted as a warning to the employer.

If previous efforts, possibly involving different sets of assets, also included gratuitous complexity, the value of those efforts might be enhanced if the current effort exploits the gratuitous complexity of the past efforts. Eventually, the entire asset suite might be converted in this way. This phenomenon is among the more difficult to detect, because it seems to be confirmation of the wisdom of past design decisions. Although that might make sense technologically, it's a wasteful investment unless the organization intends to move in the direction those assets support. Go to top Top  Next issue: Big, Complicated Problems  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Raiffa 1968]
Howard Raiffa. Decision Analysis: Introductory Lectures on Choices Under Uncertainty. New York: Mcgraw-Hill College, 1968. Order from Amazon.com. Back

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