The Cost of Complexity


In my initial blog of a five-part series, we began exploring the self-created complexities in enterprise networking and advocated for a journey towards simplicity. In this second installment, I will delve into the multifaceted costs that come with this complexity, both in terms of financial expenditure and human capital.

When attempting to gauge the impact of over-complication information technology (IT) on a business, we focus on three primary areas. First up is cost—a burden that encompasses not just capital and operational expenses—but also the human capital involved. The second is time wasted, leading to delays in delivering value. And last but certainly not least, we can't overlook the negative impact on user experience, which often manifests as clear frustration among end-users.

Spending, Seen and Unseen

No business enjoys wasting money, even when economic times are good. During periods of financial uncertainty or recession, the push to maximize efficiency while minimizing costs becomes even more critical. When I talk with customers across various continents, a common theme arises: the cost of doing business is skyrocketing, not just financially but also in the currency of human talent. Finding skilled staff is becoming increasingly difficult, retention is costly, and the advent of each new technology adds to the burden of training and enabling them.

Yet, astonishingly, many companies continue to overspend because they don't take the time to reassess their current methods. Rarely is the impact of complexity taken into account. So how does this happen? Allow me to explain through what I term the "Iceberg Model."

The Iceberg Model

Throughout my career in technology, I’ve often seen companies make purchasing decisions based solely on acquisition costs. Such a narrow focus often leads purchasing departments to disregard well-thought-out plans, paying little heed to how seamlessly a solution could integrate into the existing systems and infrastructure. However, anyone who works in our industry knows that the upfront price paid to acquire technology is merely the tip of the iceberg. Every new system introduces hidden lifetime costs—encompassing training, integration, migration, operational, and security expenses—that, like the concealed bulk of an iceberg, lurk beneath the surface and escalate with the complexity of your existing ecosystem.

Cost and Features

For example, after purchasing new software or hardware, staff typically require training to operate it effectively. This could mean either recruiting new talent with the necessary skill sets or developing the capabilities of your current team. And this educational investment is not a one-time fee—it's a recurring expenditure that includes continuous training, certification, and perhaps even attendance at industry events like conferences and seminars. The more complex the technology, the greater the time and financial investment needed to effectively become proficient.

In the word of Enterprise IT, solutions rarely come as plug-and-play; they usually demand intricate customization and integration into existing software systems and hardware infrastructure. Following that, the next layer of hidden costs often comes in the form of system migration. This isn't simply a matter of transferring data; it is a complex orchestration needed to seamlessly move users and data. The costs are not just measured in human effort, but also include business impact of downtime and associated risks.

After the complex choreography of migration is behind you, costs shift to operations. Here, the analogy of the iceberg continues, as these are the costs that not only persist but can also grow like an iceberg under the surface. Operations don't simply mean 'keeping the lights on'; they involve a range of ongoing costs from documentation to troubleshooting, lifecycle management, and software patch updates. And let's not forget the perpetual concern for security. The more complex a system, the more potential entry points there are for security threats.  So, not only do these costs endure for the life of the system's deployment, but they also vary significantly, and often unpredictably.

Upon examining these various costs, it becomes clear that focusing solely on the upfront price is akin to only considering the visible tip of an iceberg. While it may seem convenient to simply purchase a new solution or upgrade an existing one, each new addition essentially plants another iceberg in our path. The impact is not just additive; it's exponential. Rarely do pieces of software or hardware operate in isolation. Each new connection and interaction ramp up complexity, and consequently, the associated costs.


The pace of disruption in almost every industry has outpaced anything we’ve seen before and continues to accelerate. Any enterprise company caught standing still is at risk of being surpassed by faster, more agile competitors. Delays in system implementation and training can further slowdown a company, making quick pivots even more challenging. As we clearly saw at the start of the pandemic, the ability to pivot quickly can be the difference between surviving or shutting down. Agility has been an IT buzzword for years, but today it's not just a nice-to-have—it's a necessity.

So why do we persist in buying, designing, and building systems that are excessively complex and impede our progress? The more complex and difficult to understand a system is, the more brittle it becomes. This lack of flexibility limits our ability to adapt rapidly. When business strategies shift, they require systems capable of keeping pace. Drawing on a nautical analogy, it’s much easier to maneuver a small boat than to change the course of a massive tanker.

Delay isn't just a technical issue; it's a human one as well. Complex systems extend the learning curve for team members, slowing down productivity. Consider the time it takes for a new hire to understand all the systems they need for their role. Or the time spent on updating configurations and revising documentation? Moreover, if a system spans across organizational boundaries, inefficient internal communication can become an obstacle to innovation and troubleshooting.

A system bogged down by complexity and interdependence can obstruct business progress in multiple ways. Imagine the delays in launching a new product line, or entering a new market, or countering an unexpected competitor. Such delays, due to an inability to pivot quickly, can be detrimental to a company's financial health.

User Experience Frustration

Another impact of delay often leads to our third —the cost associated with frustrated employees, partners, and customers. Complex systems, whether internal or external, create friction for everyone who interacts with them, affecting the overall user experience.

Suppose a key customer asks you to develop a new product line or make a change to an existing one. While the business unit may eagerly agree in anticipation of new revenue streams, if internal complexities prevent you from adapting your roadmap or reallocating resources, your customer will look elsewhere to have their needs met.

Maybe your company offers multiple product lines with disparate interfaces, perhaps due to an acquisition or siloed development. This adds complexity to your customer’s user experience, leading to frustration. Your product may be your whole world, but for the customer, it's just a part of their larger ecosystem. If you add difficulty to their tasks, will they choose you again?

Likewise, consider the average employee's daily interaction with IT systems. Employees want a smooth user experience to accomplish their tasks efficiently. Yet, end-user experience often falls by the wayside during system deployments. The need to re-authenticate for different apps or access some apps through a VPN, for example, creates small delays and frustrations. This sense of frustration isn't confined to external users; it extends to the IT team itself. Forced to grapple with disparate systems, they must recall the intricacies of different vendors' products, making troubleshooting even more challenging. Rather than focusing on innovation, their time is consumed by resolving issues.

Consider the aggregate time wasted by just one unhappy employee, partner, or customer and multiply it across your whole organization, and the real cost of even marginal complexity comes to light.


It's evident that the complexities of a system come at a steep price for any organization. The resulting frustrated users, delayed projects, and operational burdens have unfortunately become costs we've come to accept as business as usual. But should we? As we navigate through the sea of modern business challenges, it's crucial to question whether this "normal" is acceptable, or if there's a more efficient and user-friendly course to chart.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll explore how we got here, and then discuss some ideas for how to steer our ship in a different direction.

About the Author
Justin Hurst
Chief Technology Officer, APAC

Justin Hurst is the CTO, APAC for Extreme Networks, where he is responsible for guiding the technical vision for the Extreme platform in the APAC region.

Full Bio