I’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:
Whilst 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.
Well, 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
The 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)
* 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=322029
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)