Don’t Believe the “Complexifiers”


business documentsIn my first attempt to hire my own financial advisor in my late 20s, I turned to Morgan Stanley in San Francisco. I interviewed two people.  One had a slide show presentation and overflowing binders of charts and graphs showing me how they informed his decisions, his track record, how this and that outperformed that and the other. I had little idea as to what he was talking about but I figured he must have known his stuff because he could prove it on an XY axis.

The second person, a woman, looked at me straight in the eye and said “This is not all that complicated.” I was shocked. How could it not be complicated? I didn’t understand it. Clearly the other guy must be better at this because his desk was overflowing with pie charts, I thought. I hired the guy.

I’ve since thought back on that decision a multitude of times. In retrospect, I am sure the woman was right and would have been a better fit for me. The one I hired did a fine job, I guess. But we never really built a relationship and I certainly didn’t deepen my understanding of financial investing. We had all those Powerpoints in between us. Needless to say, he is not my financial advisor today.

Over the years, I’ve run into a number of “complexifiers” and I’ll bet you have as well. They work in every sector, and in almost every office. In philanthropy, their work shows up in grantmaking processes and paperwork, procurement practices and boardrooms. There are also many complexifiers in the consulting world.

It’s hard to change a complexifier, so it helps to recognize one before you engage. When someone tries to help you, but does so through a fog of complexity, beware. It could be that they:

  • Don’t have enough confidence in their own smarts that they feel they must impress you with data, charts, six-step methods, etc.
  • Are leading with their methodology (a concept I first learned from Alan Weiss) in order to mold your needs to fit into their box. The “theory of change experts” will try to convince you to create a theory of change. The “collective impact experts” will insist your problem can be solved only after you fund a backbone organization.
  • Feel they need to justify themselves and their fee, so they present you with a 100-page briefing book when a 2 pages of bullet points and a conversation would be helpful. (If so, I bet they’re probably charging by the hour).
  • Don’t actually understand what’s needed to solve the problem or meet the goal.

If you can’t avoid complexifiers, confront them. Ask the complexifier:

  • Can you simplify this for me?
  • What’s the real bottom line here?
  • Why are all these steps really necessary?
  • If we could only accomplish one thing, what would it be?
  • Couldn’t we just (insert your simplified solution here)?
  • What is the easiest way to (insert what needs to be done)?
  • Can you summarize your 50 page document into 5 pages?

If the complexifier can’t give you a satisfactory answer, trust your instincts and find a different option. In an increasingly complex world, value those who can cut through the convoluted and complicated and provide a clean and clear path forward.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a  global philanthropy advisor, author of the new book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, and was recently named one of  America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers.   Want more ideas, tips and tools to improve your giving? Read an  article,  listen to a  podcast , or check out a  case study .

Kris will be sharing the findings of her latest report, “The Road to Achieving Equity: Findings and Lessons from a Field Scan of Foundations That Are Embracing Equity,” at several upcoming events: a webinar for National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers on January 19, and a workshop for the Colorado Association of Foundations in Denver on January 26.

“Kris asked us questions about our strategic planning that we hadn’t considered. She challenged our thinking and helped us answer key questions around the identity and purpose of our foundation. At the end, we were able to clearly articulate our value in a way that attracted new funding.”

~Dave Henderson, Board Chair, Stroke Awareness Foundation
Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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