Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

The Law of Infinite Complexity

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 14, 2008

Cooper’s Law of Infinite Complexity (I modestly claim it at as my own, not least because the only hit when I googled for it just now was this one in a book which I’m pretty sure none of has ever read – the page heading is intriguing, though) states that if you give an infinite number of people a task to do they’ll come up with an infinitely complex solution.

It follows that if you gave one person an infinite amount of time to complete a task, they would also come up with an infinitely complex solution, assuming they didn’t get bored with the whole thing and go home to get their tea. Clearly, the Law of Infinite Complexity is  a theoretical construct and is very unlikely to be tested in the real world.

However, we can see it working on a slightly smaller scale every day.  When working groups are set up to think about this and that, they rarely decide after 15 minutes that they’ve said everything that needs to be said, write down their conclusion on half a page of A4 and move on to something more productive.  Typically, they’ll have a series of meetings during which the same points will be argued over again and again and, ideally, write a very long report the whole contents of which could have been captured in a page of A4.

A similar problem often occurs when management consultants are hired.  If you’re spending a few million pounds on consultancy project, you expect a report which has sufficient heft to suggest you’ve obtained value for money.  Consultants talk about whether reports pass the ‘drop test’: i.e. does it make a sufficiently satisfying thud when you drop it on the clients desk and hand over your invoice.  Yes, it would be nice if there was some actual content in it as well, but length – and complexity – are also important measures.

I have no idea how much the UK government spends on management consultancy, but it’s safe to say it’s a heck of a lot.  If anyone can be bothered to find out (it doesn’t jump out of Google) perhaps they could post the number as a comment.


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2 Responses to “The Law of Infinite Complexity”

  1. A quick google reveals that a consortium set up by the IOC and including a university and an Australian consultancy have been documenting the lessons learned from the Sydney Olympics. I think I can see what happened. The DCMS googled for ‘lessons learned of Sydney Olympics’ and didn’t get any hits so they decided they’d better hire someone to do it. Damn.

  2. […] works as well as possible, rather than tinkering the whole time as politicians, partly due to my Law of Infinite Complexity, are inclined to […]

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