It’s complicated!…or is it?

mandelbrot-setI’ll  start with a question: What’s the difference between the two words ‘Complex’ and ‘Complicated’?

Have a think about that for a minute…and see what you arrive at.

I did a bit of fumbling around and can report back that:

  • If you look these two words up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), then you’d think they mean the same thing; however
  • If you search Google for ‘complex vs. complicated’, then you’ll find oodles of articles explaining that they differ, and (in each author’s opinion) why; and yet
  • …. if you were to read a cluster of those articles you’d find totally contradictory explanations!

Mmmm, that’s complicated…or is that complex?

This post aims to clarify, and in so doing, make some incredibly important points! It’s probably one of my most ‘technical’ efforts…but if you grapple with it then (I believe that) there is gold within.

Starting with definitions:

Here are the OED definitions:

Complex: consisting of many different and connected parts.

  • Not easy to analyse or understand; complicated or intricate”

Complicated: consisting of many interconnecting parts or elements; intricate.

  • Involving many different and confusing aspects
  • In Medicine: Involving complications.”

So, virtually the same – in fact one refers to the other! – but I think we can agree that neither are simple 🙂 . They are both about parts and their interconnections.

Turning to the ‘science’ of systems:

scienceWhilst the OED uses the ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ words interchangeably, Systems Thinkers have chosen to adopt distinctly different meanings. They do this to usefully categorise different system types.

Reading around systemsy literature2, I repeatedly see the following categorisation usage:

Simple systems: Contain only a few parts interacting, where these are obvious to those that look; Extremely predictable and repeatable

Example: your seat on an aeroplane

Complicated systems: Many parts, they operate in patterned (predictable) ways but ‘how it works’ is not easily seen…except perhaps by an expert

Example: flying a commercial aeroplane…where, of note, its predictability makes it very safe

Complex systems: unpredictable because the interactions between the parts are continually changing and the outcomes emerge – and yet look ‘obvious’ with the benefit of hindsight.

Example: Air Traffic Control, constantly changing in reaction to weather, aircraft downtime…etc.

“…and the relevance of this is?”

There is a right way, and many a wrong way, to intervene in systems, depending on their type! Therefore, correct categorisation is key.

A (the?) major mistake that ‘leaders’ of organisations make is they presume that they are dealing with a complicated system…when in fact it is complex4. If you initially find this slightly confusing (it is!) then just re-read, and ponder, the definitions above.

Management presume that they are operating within a complicated (or even simple) system whenever they suppose that they can:

– administer a simple course of ‘best practise’ or external expert advice…and all will be well;

– plan in detail what something will turn out like, how long it will take and at what cost…when they’ve never done it before!;

– implement stuff as if it can simply be ‘rolled back’ to an earlier state if it doesn’t work out…not understanding that, once acted upon, the people affected have been irrevocably changed (and regularly suffer from what I refer to as ‘change fatigue’5);

– isolate and alter parts of the system to deliver a predicted (and overly simplistic) outcome…by which I am referring to the slapstick ‘benefits case’ and it’s dastardly offspring the ‘benefits realisation plan’…

…Management can, of course, invoke the Narrative Fallacy to convince themselves that all that was promised has been achieved (and will be sustained)…whilst ignoring any inconvenient ‘side effects’;

– strip out (and throw away) fundamental parts of a system whilst invoking their constant simplification battle cry…because they can’t (currently) see, let alone understand, why these parts are necessary;

…and I’m sure you can carry on the list.

The distinction between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ fits quite nicely with Russell Ackoff’s distinction between deterministic (mechanistic) and organic systems; and  John Seddon’s distinction between manufacturing and service organisations (and the complexity of variety in customer demand).

Put simply 🙂 , in complex systems, it’s the relationships between the parts (e.g. people) that dominate.

So what?

jack-deeWell, if Management understand that they are dealing with a complex organisation then they will (hopefully) see the importance of designing their system to take advantage of (rather than butcher) this fact.

Such a design might include:

  • aligning individual and organisational purpose, by sharing success (and removing management instruments that cause component-optimising behaviours)
  • putting capability measures into the hands of front line/ value creating workers, where such measures:
  • allowing and supporting the front line/ value creating workers to:
    • absorb the customer variety that presents itself to them; and
    • imagine, and experiment with, ways of improving the service for their customers
  • …and much much more systemsy thinking

This would mean creating a system that is designed to continuously adjust as its components change in relation to one another. That would be the opposite of ‘command and control’.

Huge clarification: Many a command-and-control manager may respond that, yes, they already continually adjust their system…I know you do!!!  It’s not you that should be doing the adjusting…and so to self-organisation:

From simple to complex…and back again6

answersThe giant systems thinker Donella Meadows wrote that highly functional systems (i.e. the ones that work really well) likely contain three characteristics – resilience7, self-organisation and hierarchy8.

I’ll limit myself here to writing about self-organisation:

“The most marvellous characteristic of some complex systems is their ability to learn, diversify, complexify, evolve…This capacity of a system to make its own structure more complex is called self-organisation(Meadows)

Wow, ‘complexify’ – a new word?!…and it can be a very good thing…and goes 1800 against the corporate simplification mantra:

“We would do better at encouraging, rather than destroying, the self-organising capacities of the systems of which we are a part….which are often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stabiliy7(Meadows)

It turns out that complexity isn’t of itself a bad thing…in fact quite the opposite – a system can achieve amazing things as it becomes more complex. Just consider that, through the process of evolution, ‘we’ have ‘complexified’ (can you see what I did there) from amoeba to human beings!

…but what’s REALLY interesting is that this complexity is enabled by simplicity!

“System theorists used to think that self-organisation was such a complex property of systems that it could never be understood…new discoveries, however, suggest that just a few simple organising principles can lead to wildly diverse self-organising structures.” (Meadows)

Meadows went on to note that:

“All of life, from viruses to redwood trees, from amoebas to elephants, is based on the basic organising rules encapsulated in the chemistry of DNA, RNA, and protein molecules.”

In short: Simple rules can allow complex systems to blossom, self-learn and grow.

I believe that a wonderful, and complex, organisation can be created and sustained from living a simple philosophy.

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour.

Complex rules and procedures give rise to simple and stupid behaviour.” (Dee Hock)

….so what might such a simple philosophy be? Well, Deming was ‘all over’ this with his ‘Theory of Profound knowledge’* and ’14 points for Management’.

* Deming explained simply that we should:

  • Observe, and handle, the world around us as systems (which, by definition, require a purpose that is obvious to all);
  • Expose, and understand, variation;
  • Gain knowledge through studying and experimenting;
  • Understand psychology and truly respect each and every human being ; and
  • Lead through our actions and abilities.

…and a final warning against that oversimplification thing:

“Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.”  (Clay Shirky)

The short ‘simple’ version at the end of the long ‘complicated’ one 🙂

‘Complexity’ is not the inherently bad ogre as persistently painted by contemporary management. Rather, it can be a defining property of our organisational system that we would do well to understand and embrace.

Let’s feast at the ’complex but right’ bookcase of knowledge, design appropriate and evolving responses based on simple scientific wisdom and climb the mountain…rather than automatically follow the crowd over the ‘simple but wrong’ cliff!


1. Opening Image: This image is a part of the Mandelbrot Set – an amazingly complicated (or is that complex?) image that is derived from the application of a simple mathematical formula. It sits within the fractal school of Mathematics (repeating patterns) alongside others such as the Koch snowflake.

Image Source : CC BY-SA 3.0,

2. Systems Thinking Literature: This systems thinking is taken, in part, from a 2011 HBR article Learning to Live with Complexity.

3. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework is built (partly) around the difference between complicated and complex….and the importance of correctly identifying your system type before intervening. Snowden’s framework also adds the idea of chaotic systems, where there is some emergency that requires urgent action (without the time to experiment)…where the action chosen may determine how the chaos is halted…which may or may not be in your favour!

4. The inclusion of people in a system likely makes it complex.

5. Change Fatigue: This is my phrase for those people who have worked for an organisation for many years and had the annual ‘silver bullet’ change programme rolled out on them…and got bored of the same lecture and the same outcomes. It is very hard to energise (i.e. excite) someone with ‘change fatigue’.

6. Cartoon: I LOVE this cartoon! It is sooo apt. The vast majority are on the simple road, following the crowd over an (unseen) cliff…or at least not seen until it is too late. A few turn right at the ‘bookcase of knowledge’ – they take a book or two and then travel a circuitous and uphill road to an interesting destination.

7. Resilience vs. stability clarification: “Resilience is not the same thing as being…constant over time. Resilient systems can be very dynamic….conversely, systems that are constant over time can be unresilient.” (Donella Meadows)

8. Hierarchy: I’m aware that some organisations have experimented without a formal hierarchy (e.g. Holacracy). However, even they create a set of rules to assist them co-ordinate their component parts.

It’s worth noting that “Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up…the original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its originating subsystems do their jobs better…[however] many systems are not meeting our goals because of malfunctioning hierarchies…

 To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve co-ordination towards the large-system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organising.” (Meadows)


8 thoughts on “It’s complicated!…or is it?

  1. Well Squire

    again an insightful


    Hmm why named Squire?

    Jimmy the Hand

    comes to mind

    Aruthra, Pug and Macros the Black

    remember that

    order and chaos

    preceded the rest

    and without the imaginary

    the Mandelbrot set

    would only be

    points on the real line!

    But hey of the rest of your post

    I do agree

    for it is

    the complexity

    that sets the path

    for me


      • The lines “Jimmy the Hand” to “preceded the rest”
        were inserted as reference to see if you had heard of Midkemia the universe constructed by Raymond al.

        Jimmy the Hand becomes a squire to the court of Prince Aruthra at Krondor.

        I have recently been introduced to this set of books and have completed reading the original first trilogy of the Riftwar, Magician Order and chaos were the original duality of this version of the universe and its creation.

        These books are Magician, Silverthorn, and A Darkness at Sethanon.

        Why the reference? Simple answer the word squire, complex answer: These stories contain some wonderful examples of what your blog intends (well my interpretation and thus assumption of your intention that is!)

        The lines “and without the imaginary” to “points on the real line!”
        reference the important aspect of complex numbers as in a+ib where i is the infamous square root of -1.
        The Mandelbrot set is formed from the rates of convergence of a particular complex equation which you probably already know.

        complex numbers are represented by a the “real.” and b the “imaginary” and the presentation the “symbolic” as in the picture displayed.

        “Here, in line with Badiou, we will present the Real (and the “passions” that circulate around in it) as a Lacanian notion.[In Lacanian theory, the Real is Trinitarian: it is always to be thought in relation to two other terms (the Imaginary and the Symbolic). To understand one, it is necessary to situate it in relation to the others. The Christian parallels are inherent in Lacan’s thought. Just as one cannot define the Holy Spirit without also attending to God and Jesus Christ, so one cannot define the Real without speaking of the Imaginary and Symbolic.”

        The real is what exists and in the case

        In his lecture Professor Badiou argued that in the world today, the “real” is generally confused with the economy. Knowledge of the “real” has been reduced progressively to economics, to the point that economics now literally dictate the obligations of politics.

        He argued that political scandals show us a small part of the “real” which is generally obscured and invisible. These scandals are presented as an exception to the law of the world, rather than representative of the general or structural situation, and function finally as propaganda.

        See the full lecture at

        Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are contemporary philosophers well worth exploring. Jacques Lacan was a contemporary of Jean-Paul Sartre.

        “Since, for Lacan, all of conventional reality is mediated through fantasy (our own fantasies, and the fantasies of others, provide the warp and woof of everyday experience)”

        “Both Lacan and Sartre ascribe to a theory of split subjectivity, in which the human being is split between its subjectivity and its objectivity—for Lacan, the innenwelt and the umwelt, and for Sartre, the for-itself and factical being in-itself and for-others.”

        Well must get back to the reality of this workplace space!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Thank you for sharing this.
    Talking about the relationship between complexity and simplicity, Dr. Goldratt (ToC) called it “inherent simplicity” i.e. the more a system is complex and the few will be the number of constraints (the elements able to really affecting system’s performances)
    Keep it up!👍

    Liked by 1 person

    • Complicated is not a synonym for complex
      The more a system is complicated the more likely there is an identifiable limiting constraint.
      Complexity especially dynamic complexity is a very interesting object


  3. I buy the theories, I do. But maybe just sometimes it’s all a little overthought and it is neither complex nor complicated, it just is.

    In large organisations, particularly those that are service orientated, there are lots of people who just want to come to work, get their 100 widgets done and leave, and that’s ok. These are the guys and gals that keep the machine ticking over. They’re not overly Interested in systems thinking and complex v complicated arguments, they just know that they need to do 100 widgets and they can leave for the day to concentrate on what life has to throw at them.

    In my experience that’s a vast majority of the workforce not really caring about self organisation and autonomy, just people who know how to do their job and want some reassurance that the job is there to do tomorrow.

    Unfortunately the nature of my work as ‘an agent of change’ sometimes means my goals conflict with those who, in reality, keep me in work. Sometimes it’s good to try and understand, but sometimes it’s easier to just plough through and get the job done and not overthink it.


    • Thanks for adding your thoughts Dave.

      Just to clarify: I am certainly not suggesting that ‘everybody in an organisation’ needs to be aware of, let alone understand, what’s written in this post (or the rest of this blog). They most certainly don’t need to know about, or even have heard of ‘systems thinking’ and the like. I am, however, suggesting that those that have been put in/ assumed positions of management would do well to.

      I agree that there are many people who simply want to turn up, do their work, and leave again. This isn’t an issue of itself. The question for management is ‘what sort of environment will provide the best chance for meaningful and sustainable success of the organisation, for the good of all’ (where ‘all’ refers to customers, employees, investors…and society).

      Regarding service organisations: You write “In large organisations, particularly those that are service oriented, there are lots of people who just want to come to work, get their 100 widgets done and leave, and that’s ok.” A couple of thoughts:

      – why do ‘we’ (i.e. loads of people in general) assume that this is to be expected, and acceptable, just because an organisation is ‘large’? The large attribute is so often used as an excuse by those in management for the poor environment that they have created.

      – why “particularly those that are service oriented”? Sure, the ‘make my widgets and go home’ mentality is probably what has eventuated from the appalling environment created by (what I would say is flawed) industrial ‘economies of scale’ thinking for service…but in actual fact customers of service organisations want (need!) the people serving them to care. It will be down to management’s thinking, and the resultant environment that they create, as to whether this is the case.

      On “plough through and get the job done and not overthink it” – I would refer to this as ‘track 1’ thinking….though I am not pretending that ‘track 2’ is easy or even likely to succeed. I choose to try.

      See an earlier post:

      Hope the above makes some sense 🙂

      Happy Christmas/ New Year


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