The Difference between the “Complicated” and the “Complex”

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And its implications for your approach to introducing change

What’s the difference between sending a rocket into space and getting children to succeed in school? What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumour and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder? Answers: sending a rocket into space and surgeons extracting brain tumours are complicated tasks, while getting children to succeed in school and the criminal justice system to function properly are complex activities.

Complicated activities like rocket launchings and brain surgery require engineer-designed blueprints, step-by-step algorithms and procedures, well-trained staff, computer software and special equipment. A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning, smooth implementation of policies and procedures, and a clock-like organisation of tasks to be performed.

Complicated systems operate in standardised ways and everything is done to improve performance and reduce uncertainty and mistakes. The emphasis is on process and procedure, command and control. This is much like what happens in the cockpit when flying an airplane. Yet, even those sophisticated systems fail from time to time when an anomaly enters the picture, such as smoke in the cockpit that led to the fatal crash of Swissair 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1998.

Complex systems like education and criminal justice, however, involve interactions between numerous players of varied expertise, independence and inter-dependence. They are rather unpredictable and uncontrollable, and can produce surprises, primarily due to the participation of and interaction between people.

Complex systems are constantly evolving and adaptive. Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and managers simply are inadequate to get complex systems to operate effectively. Think of the interface between front-line airline staff and their customers – the passenger. Often when dealing with complex situations such as flight delays, these require good judgement and leadership on the part of customer-facing staff, as opposed to following strict operating procedures. One only needs to be reminded of the incident when a passenger was dragged off a United Airline flight in April.

The practical implications of this distinction between the complicated and the complex is that the approach to dealing with situations and change needs to be different. Those who run complicated systems can introduce change by laying out a detailed design of what is to be changed, step-by-step procedures to implement the change and overcome employee resistance, and reduce variation in performance once the change is implemented. It is a highly rational, mechanical approach that can be managed, much like a machine.

However, this will hardly work for those who inhabit complex systems where conflict and unplanned changes occur all the time. Imposing procedures from complicated organisations onto complex systems are bound to fail. Working in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. Introducing reform requires leadership. Management is about control; leadership is about change.

Most organisations exhibit both complicated and complex environments – just think of airline operations, a highly complicated activity, versus sales and marketing and customer service, which are highly complex activities. Employees, and particularly those at more senior levels, must be able to recognise the environment in which they are interacting and adjust their style accordingly – to that of the manager or that of the leader, and often it is a subtle combination of both.

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