Troy’s Law of Complexification

Several days ago, I found myself sitting in a Zoom meeting at work.  My mind was wandering, mostly because I wasn’t even for sure why I’d been invited to participate.

An idea suddenly came to me, so I reached for the notebook I always keep at hand to capture writing topics when they come.  The other participants in the meeting—I had my camera turned on—would simply think that I was taking notes about the information that was being presented.  Little did they know I was about to jot down a few ideas that would become the blog you’re in the process of reading.

The notes I took that day have led me to formulate Troy’s Law of Complexification as relates to what I’m going to call the World of Work for Pay (WoWfP).  While thinking about the principles I’m about to share with you, I did a little research to see if others had come up with similar laws and theories.  In the process of Googling around a bit, sticking my nose into every little cyber nook and cranny, I found that some are writing about the complexification within systems (including this piece in which the writer puts together an argument that runs counter to the one I’m laying out), but none are saying exactly what I’m about to say. 

Troy’s Law of Complexification holds that jobs and workplaces tend to become increasingly complex over time and that this principle can lead to quite absurd and demoralizing results.  I’ll use my own career to illustrate.

As many of you know, I’ve been an academician for a long time.  I’ve spent most of my career teaching writing, literature, and critical thinking to students at various colleges and universities located in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

I can divide my career into two main periods:  the pre-internet phase and the post-internet years.  Prior to the advent of the internet, I mostly dealt with traditional texts, meaning texts on paper.  My job required that I act as a subject matter expert, and I taught the skills I mentioned earlier.  During the early years of my career, I was able to focus on imparting those abilities I’d learned in my formal education.  After the creation of the internet, my work changed dramatically.  I began to deal with texts on screens and was required to be both a subject matter expert and a master of technology and how to use it in lesson preparation and delivery.  Now, rather than being able to focus on imparting skills to students, I have to spend a lot of my time and energy training and retraining. 

The previous paragraph illustrates how the WoWfP doesn’t stand apart from society, cultural values, and technological developments; it is a part of society and uncritically incorporates all such changes in the workplace.  (The key word here is “uncritically.”)  Also, complexification not only occurred between the two major periods of my career; it happened within each period as well.

Today, I cannot do my job unless I know how to build a website, create a Zoom link, build a Microsoft Word Excel spreadsheet, and troubleshoot my computer (just to name a few small examples).  In very real ways, the work I do today bears almost no resemblance to the work I did in the past even though I haven’t changed careers.   

The following is a list of the basic principle of Troy’s Law of Complexification:

  • Jobs, workplaces, and workplace cultures always move from less complex to more complex.
  • After reaching ever-increasing levels of complexity, jobs never get simpler.  (This complexification is linear and unidirectional.)
  • The WoWfP seems to reject the notion that “less is more.”
  • The WoWfP rewards complexity and disfavors simplicity.
  • The pressure to complexify is especially strong in capitalist countries because complexification is seen as the best way to achieve maximum productivity, the ultimate aim of all for-profit entities.

Of course, as I write this, my thinking about my law is developing.  Perhaps I’ll need to write a follow up next week?

What do you think about my law?  Does it match your own experience?    

I look forward to your comments.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

If you’d like to see some of Troy’s art, have a look.

28 thoughts on “Troy’s Law of Complexification

    1. I noticed the work “thankfully” in your response. I look forward to the day when I can be similarly thankful. I have had a small involvement in investment real estate over the past several years. I can easily imagine that both the work types you mentioned are getting increasingly complex and legalistic. Thanks for the comment.

  1. God, how much I relate with each word here. From text on paper, literature is all that Internet tells us. And whatever about grading papers online, acrobat and all, it’s extremely complex and unfair to both academicians and students.
    Zoom, aah, the painful meetings…when administrators can make things simple, they have taken it upon themselves to be the champions of this Complexification.
    It’s like a huge web, all are helplessly caught in.
    Troy, your theory hits the nail.

    1. Hi. Thanks. Are you an educator? I have noticed a disturbing trend. Decision makers, when they have the choice between taking a user-friendly and streamlined approach versus a labor-intensive approach, the latter course is almost always taken. I wonder if this is a way of keeping workers “busy.” Many organizations have this unspoken fear that people are just sitting around and goofing off. This looks to be a basic mistrust of those who work. Mistrust is rampant in the workplace.

  2. Everyone have evolved. My grandmother used to tell me how scared she was when she got her gas stove. She was using a coal stove before. But she survived. I was thinking how casually I was using a self checkout counter at the grocery shop. These are simple things we housewives have got used to. So no wonder work environment too has changed.😀 I too would love the pen and paper era, but things have changed. My Mom has to learn to use the whatsapp or she can’t connect with me!

    1. Hi. I appreciate your comment. I don’t think I’m arguing against the evolution of the individual and the workplace. I’m arguing against hyper-complexity. When solutions are found, there is no reason to second guess them. When one is asked to do a “development plan,” there is no need to add two more development plans that are be undertaken at the same time the first one was assigned. Complexity builds upon itself and self-perpetuates. It is like a monster. Once it begins, it grows wildly and become uncontrolled and uncontrollable. More and more complexity for its own sake is actually self-defeating. Your mom has evolved in her use of technology, but what if someone came in and told her that whatsapp was no longer enough. That she needed to learn Skype and Zoom and several other systems. And then, a few months later, she was told all of these were obsolete and needed to stop using them all because something better had been found? There is a constant churning, a constant adding and adding and changing and upheaval.

      1. Yes technology is moving at a very fast pace. Some people may have tough time adapting to it and some may not have time to learn it. It also depends on an individual interest too. Anyway thanks for giving me a detailed reply. Yes my Mom will stop using her phone if I asked her to move to another app for communication!

      2. What I’ve noticed is that people get turned off at work if there is a never-ending overcomplicating of matters. Like your mother who would simply stop using her phone, many quietly seethe when things get more and more complicated for no good reason. Thanks for sharing your story about your mom!

  3. OTOH, other jobs have been turned into a person acting just like a machine. Of course, once that happens you are one step away from replacing the worker with someone with minimal skills or going to a machine outright.

    Once upon a time, I worked for a major telecom company. My job was to offer customer support to people who were installing their fancy new fiber-optic network. This included landline, smartphone, internet, television, and streaming video. I had to understand all these systems at a fairly high level of complexity and at the same time make the customer happy. I had a fair amount of authority to do what I needed to do. It was a complex job and I was very good at what I did. I felt the caller’s state of mind and customized what I said and how.

    Fast forward about a decade. My job consists of running down an AI-generated checklist. Every box must be checked and I am not allowed to do anything not on the list. All that understanding of how multiple complex systems worked was unnecessary. We’re now measured on things like; did we make the mandatory “empathy statement,” did we make the mandatory apology, did we say the customer’s name twice in the first 30 seconds, did we thank them with a branding statement at the end of the call, how quickly we concluded the call – and most importantly – did we upsell the customer.

    Needless to say by that time most of the support calls were going to India to people with improbable names like Jason Smith or Natalie Jones but with a thick Indian accent. New US hires were brought in at half the pay and minimal training. Worst of all, customer morale had dropped and the number of angry people we had to deal with climbed. “If I hear one more apology from you I’m going to explode! Fix the damn thing!”

    But I can’t because my tools have been taken. I no longer have any authority. I can’t do anything not on my list and I can’t escalate without supervisory approval which is unlikely to happen because they get dinged when they escalate and even if they do, Tier 2 support never talks directly to customers which means we have to call the customer back to say the wisdom we’ve been given.

    What had been an interesting and challenging job was now a stress-filled, soul-killing, drudge. So I took early retirement at 62. Some jobs may get overcomplicated but many others get dumbed down. In both cases because it is cheaper.

    1. Hi, Fred. Wow! Thanks for sharing your amazing story. You are right. What they were wanting was a machine, and they didn’t know how to appreciate the bright and insightful human being they’d hired. And employers scratch their collective heads and remain puzzled at what morale in the workplace remains so low. It there any mystery as why this is happening or why so few Americans really like their jobs?

      I’m fascinated by what’s happening with labor during this pandemic. So many are being so selective about the sorts of jobs they are willing to do. Good for us! It seems we might be finding our long-lost self-respect.

      If you haven’t already done so, you should write a blog about your work experience. Would you like to put together something for Pointlessoverthinking as a guest post?

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

    1. Fred, do you think we’re sounding like a couple of old fuddy duddies? If so, so be it…Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to read and comment. I truly appreciate it.

    1. Hi, Kristina Smith. Yes, there’s always the legal ramifications to consider. I’m all for learning on the job. But the sort of thing I’m seeing seems less about learning and improving and more about what looks like “busy work.” You know the old saying about idle hands, right? So many workplaces are terrified by the fact that some of their employees may actually be sitting still at work from time to time. The horrors! Thanks for your comment.

  4. The Law is true, though I have a corollary: as complexification increases, layer of unnecessary and overpaid bureaucracy are created, leading to failure of corporate/government/WofWfP structuring.

    1. Yes, Em! Yes! You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head! Here’s the irony. Upper management fears that those under them might actually be taking time during the workday to catch their breath and recenter while those at the top appear to actually be more idle than those “under” them. By the way, I hate the whole “under” and “over” language we use in the workplace to describe hierarchical arrangements. Thanks so much for your wise comment.

  5. Interesting theory, Troy. I wonder what part personal evolvement plays in this. In your example, would you be happy if your job was exactly the same now as it was in the beginning? Maybe some of the complexification happens to give people a sense of growth or at least change?

    1. Hi, Wynne. It’s always good to hear from you. I’m not against change in my job or even complication. It’s the hyper-complication that really bothers me. For example, during this current period, I’ve been asked to do four different “development plans” by the same entity and nearly for the same purpose. It doesn’t really seem to be complexification for some meaningful purpose. It appears more like “busy work,” the sort of work teachers assign to elementary school students to keep them quiet and occupied. Plus, I feel like my power is being diluted. By having way too many things to concentrate on, I am getting weaker in every single one of those things because I simply can’t marshal my powers. It should be more about prioritization. Put the most important stuff first and truly focus on that. But when everything is given the same level of priority, nothing is prioritized. In that event, morale suffers and actual work performance suffers. See what I mean? Thanks for commenting.

  6. I always tend to see life in its complexity in many ways. For example, each effort is bound to hit or miss again, not to denigrate of its stance. In the name of productivity progress is calculated with rose tinted glasses when slow and steady proves to be the forte in succession. Always the best is in the travel not the destination as people led to believe. I was told, partial knowledge or ignorance is a fertile ground for all projections, so have a hunger to learn on the go but not to force and make it obtuse. Does this all sound sensible?

    1. Yes, your comment makes perfect sense and you’ve made many wise points. Busier workers does not always equate with better workers. When a person has “too much on their plate,” they just may stop eating. Thanks for the comment.

  7. I agree with you Troy. I give you an example about my work. Until July 2021 there was, among others, a tool on the portal we use to manage projects. That tool analyzed the projects to detect plagiarism. It did with one click for the whole project. Then, the project manager was supposed to check the similarities found by the artificial intelligence above a certain percentage. Now you have to click each part of the project you have to analyze. What the project manager does afterwards has remained the same. But now you have to do it one by one, also for those parts that are lower than the set percentage. Maybe it’s because they want to keep us busy or to develop additional synapses (that ultimately it’s not bad but I don’t like losing my time doing something that doesn’t bring an added value).

    1. Hi, crisbiecoach. You have perfectly described my exact frustration. It appears we might be working for the same employer (or the same type of employer). Who do they think they are fooling? We are all smart people. We can see through these charades and understand when we being exploited or misused or spread too thin, whatever the correct term is. Of course, this takes a toll on morale and is thus counterproductive. Thanks so much for your comment.

      1. Hi Troy, I don’t know about your employer, but to be able to work for mine, one needs to pass a very difficult selection process. So, they want smart and high skilled staff, to make them do also tasks with no added value. The management calls it “efficiency gains”. I don’t see neither the efficiency (I personally need a long time to learn new IT tasks, I am not GEN Y or Z) nor gains (where is the gain in making processes more complicated?).

  8. Hi Troy! Your theory definitely seems to hold true in my line of work. I recently started working as a translator for a school district and I have noticed this trend. Some of my colleagues have worked this job for over 10 years and have walked me through the succession of how the “translation department” has evolved over the years, starting with just one translator for the whole district, up to 5 over the years. The reason I put the name of the department between quotation marks is because we are not our own department, but rather a branch of a different department (which made sense when the T department consisted of only one person), but it seems inevitable that we will eventually have to evolve into our own department. And so, one branch related to languages turns into two, like a cell splitting and multiplying; and I’m sure this has happened many times as school systems became more complex as well.

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