The solution to complexity is not always simplicity.

"For every complex problem," wrote essayist H. L. Mencken, "there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." Too often, as Mencken infers, we look for clarity where there is none and, as a result, striving for simplicity leads us into a blind alley.

Given Mencken's propensity to castigate the political process, this quote was likely aimed at politicians but it could serve as a warning to managers and, for that reason, it is worth examining.

When a manager gives directions, he or she must make them actionable. Or the task will not be complete. But clarity of direction is the end step, the outcome of forethought and analysis about what can or cannot be done. That may not be so simple.

We live in a world of complexity as well as one of ambiguity. It is unsettling but it is reality. Managers need to navigate in these waters and if they are to lead effectively they must provide some form of guidance. They must, as I wrote in my book Lead With Purpose, "square the circle." That means managers need to address what they can address and leave the rest to others. That means, scope the problem and frame up what can be solved, and then attack it.

As an example, consider a western wildfire. Fire crews work around the clock for days on end to gain control of a blaze that stretches over territories as large as counties or a small eastern state. The entire fire is not the responsibility of the crew; instead, employees need to work their sectors. They can establish a series of fire breaks or back burns that rob the oncoming fire of the fuel it needs to feed itself. Eventually the ferocity of the fire is tamed so that the crew can put it out, or let it die on its own.

The complexity of the wildfire has been tamed by the simplicity of workers who coordinate their own portion of the work in harmony with the larger group. At the same time, what the crew does on one fire does not alleviate conditions for new fires in other parts of the forest. The crew did its job. It squared its circle and accomplished the assignment.

We gravitate to quick fixes, particularly when so much else is going on. Then expediency trumps simplicity. Just get it done becomes the mantra. In many situations, that strategy is just fine. When the problem is small and isolated, say, and can be remedied quickly.

But sometimes expediency becomes the enemy. It masks problems rather than solves them. Engineers are taught to practice root cause analysis as a means to understand underlying symptoms causing the problem. Getting to the cause can be a complex task and involves lots of time-consuming analysis, but it must be done.

"Man is not born to solve the problem of the universe," said writer Johann von Goethe, "but to find out what he has to do; and to restrain himself within the limits of his comprehension."

Jumping to conclusions before the work is done risks falling into the Menckenian trap of make it look good, even though it may be too good to be true.