How to make a better mousetrap (the Law of Complexity)

Something that captured my professional imagination many years ago was the idea of measuring quality in the pharmacy industry. How do we know if medications are being used appropriately?
Jesse McCullough
Founder, Keystone Pharmacy Insights
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Have you ever played the board game Mousetrap? I must admit that it has been many years since I last did, but I remember that the distinguishing feature of this game is that the players build an elaborate mousetrap and then have to avoid getting caught in it to win the game. 

This is an example of a Rube Goldberg machine. Goldberg was a cartoonist many years ago who gained notoriety for drawing pictures of highly elaborate machines which performed rather simple functions. Occasionally, I come across a video on social media of a Rube Goldberg machine, and I must admit that I have a hard time not watching to find out what the result will be. While it may be enjoyable to build the mouse trap in the game or watch a video on social media, there is an important leadership lesson to learn.

I learned this lesson while trying to lead someone very important to me – my daughter.

Something that captured my professional imagination many years ago was the idea of measuring quality in the pharmacy industry. How do we know if medications are being used appropriately? Many people much smarter than I sat down to tackle this question and the end result was a complex formula of inclusion and exclusion criteria, coupled with data sources and some algebra, so you could calculate the score for quality. This fascinated me! I studied and studied and after studying this topic for more than a decade, I still had a ton to learn. 

As my household was coming up to summer vacation, my school-age daughter decided to become lead negotiator for her brother and sister in an attempt to have an extended bedtime for a few weeks. I was up for this challenge. The result was an overly complicated, Rube Goldberg machine-like calculation (based on my study of quality measures), for how long each child could stay up. It was a failure – much too complex to keep up with on a daily basis.

This experience points us to an important principle for our leadership, and our lives in general. It is called the Law of Complexity. This law can be expressed as a mathematical formula very simply as X2, where X represents the number of steps in a system. The complexity of a system is equal to the square of the number of steps in that system. For example, a system that has just 2 steps would have a complexity score of 4, while another system that has 7 steps would have a complexity score of 49. The higher the complexity, the more difficult the system is to lead and the more things can go wrong.

The other day a colleague mentioned how much less stress his summer vacation was now that 4 of his 6 kids were no longer in the house. Understandably so, the complexity of his family vacation had gone from a score of 64 down to a score of 16! 

Pharmacy is a complex system. You and I could make a long list of what it takes to get a drug from the manufacturer into your patient’s hand and that is when things get really tough – getting the patient to take the medication correctly.

Lesson? In our leadership, no matter where we are leading, we must strive for simplicity. We must obey the law of complexity and take steps whenever we can to reduce the number of steps and reduce the complexity score.

Over time, there can be a natural tendency to make things overly complex. How can you tell? One of the things I listen for is a phrase that goes something like this: “This is how we have always done it.” (There is a huge tangent lesson here that intersects the Law of Complexity with the Law of Cause and Effect, but we will save that for another time). There are variations on this phrase you have likely heard. You may even have used the phrase yourself. 

Leaders lead people from where they are to a better place. This better place is always uphill. By that I mean that it is not easy to get to this place. So, leaders must help clear the way. One of the ways we can do this is by reducing the complexity of the system.  There is great power in simplicity. People like simple things. Simple things are repeated.  Repeated things change the world.

Where can you apply the Law of Complexity to lead your team to a better place?

Until next time –

Jesse McCullough, PharmD

Connect with Jesse on LinkedIn




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