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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Ability to Simplify Complexity

On Thursday October 6th, Pete Dymit, principal of Minnetonka Middle School East in Minnesota, added a personal message to the electronic newsletter to parents. The message was a response to the tributes to Steve Jobs and it struck me as an insightful message with a vision. A message showing leadership and addressing the crucial ability to simplify complexity. A message pertaining to change management, personal development as well as leadership development. Over to Pete, who is kind of enough to share his message through my blog:

Message from the Principal

During the last twelve hours I’ve been listening to an endless stream of tributes to Steve Jobs. Of all the assessments of who he was and what he accomplished, the one that most resonates with me was the one that described him as having a “singular ability to simplify complexity.” Before Jobs, digital music and MP3 players were available, but no one else was able to deliver it in a simple and elegant way like the iPod did. Before Jobs, smartphones were available, but no one was able to simply integrate a phone/music/internet device the way the iPhone did. These two devices have significantly changed our worlds and they epitomize complexity simplified.
For all of the talk lately about how our students need 21st Century Skills and STEM experiences, there is still a great deal of ambiguity surrounding exactly what these skills and experiences really are. One explanation might be to say these are the skills and experiences that will provide students with the know-how to simplify complexity….….and the ability to simplify complexity is a talent essential to their futures.

Information technology has become massively complex and in a world where almost all information is available at the touch of a finger, what information is relevant and what is merely a time suck? In a job environment where you are collaborating with IT people in India, manufacturers in China, and advertising people in New York, how do you take the complex array of cultures, languages, personalities, motivations, and perceptions that are brought to the table and simplify them down to the essential elements of effective collaboration?
An engineering degree will provide a student with the skills to create and manipulate complexity, but if that is all you can do, there is someone else in another part of the world that can do it for pennies to your dollar. A Master’s degree in business will provide students with the skills to manage complexity, but if that is all you can do, you will likely end up in a middle management job stressed out, overworked, and a half step ahead of the next round of restructuring. Those with the ability to simplify complexity will be the sought after resources and will be the people who will shape the future.

What does all of this mean to a middle schooler at MME? It means that if you want to be a person who can simplify complexity, it is not enough to get the math problem right; you need to understand how math explains relationships. It means that it is not enough to remember the facts of WW II, you need to understand how themes like power, greed, autonomy, scarcity, values, and resources influence human behavior and create conflict, which shape history. It means that it is not enough to know the periodic table and the life cycle of a frog, you need to understand how the scientific process and engineering design principles are the foundation to understanding how our world works. Finally, for us as adults, it means always encouraging them to understand the “why” behind the “what.” That intuitive understanding of the “why” and what to do with it, is what made Steve Jobs a legend.

Pete Dymit

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