February 11, 2022

Have you noticed that things often appear simple until we realize they aren’t?

We see this happen a lot with projects that seem simple at the outset. Then we get into the details and our experience doesn’t match our expectation. We suddenly realize the gnarly complexity of the situation.

It gets messy when we dig in, right?


This is normal. Facing new, harder, and more complex problems is a sign of growth and an opportunity to contribute more value.

Visualizing the problem is the key first step to solving hard, complex problems. I recently helped a team make a Multi-Factor Authentication problem visual. It got messy, but:

“Despite the mess, we gained clarity.”

When you hit complexity, seek clarity

We’re looking for clearness of perception, understanding, and thinking. To get to clarity, seek a more complete and more accurate picture of the situation by including more perspectives.

The goal is to capture what is with few filters and little judgement.

Test for clarity by explaining the situation to someone else

Listen to how it sounds to you as you articulate what’s going on. Then pay attention to their reaction and listen to the questions they ask.

Use that experience to break the complexity into smaller segments until it feels right explaining it. It’s a bit of an art to getting it right, so rely on your instincts and colleagues to make the call.

Start with what you already see clearly

Don’t make it hard on yourself and just start where you are with what you see clearly.

Keep asking questions to clarify. Add what you learn to the visual. Notice the patterns as they arise, and isolate different areas to untangle when you are ready.

For example, the first step of clarity for the Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) effort revealed three distinct, connected steps: attention, action, and adherence. We figured this out while drawing the process as we understood it, then asked questions to fill in missing pieces.

The resulting conversation shifted our thinking. We painted a high-level picture that helped the team plan better while drilling deeper into each of the areas with the right people.

Prepare yourself: clarity takes time

Think of it as understanding and then distilling the situation. As you break down each area into smaller pieces, you often work through the process again. And again.

Getting this right takes time.

It might feel like analysis paralysis, or someone will accuse you of it. Your team might feel stuck and complain that progress stalled.

Expect this discomfort from yourself and others — and then do it anyway, confident in the outcome.

Otherwise, you risk creating more friction that erodes value, destroys trust, and burns people out. You’ll end up with more complexity, more problems, and a project that takes longer and costs more to finish up.

Clarity is the fuel for acceleration

When the team I’m helping focused on the action step — what we needed people to do in order to enable and use MFA — we saw the technical complexity and some potential limitations more clearly.

Even better, we used our drawings to show our work to others.

We used the new insights to go back and revisit the assumptions and intentions of the project. We worked with our executive sponsors to recalibrate success.

The time spent gaining clarity allowed us to deliver value faster.

The key insight: be the person who seeks clarity when confronting complexity.

About the Author Michael Santarcangelo

The founder of Security Catalyst, Michael develops exceptional leaders and powerful communicators with the security mindset for success.

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