David Wilkinson

Author and expert on Ambiguity and Emotional Resilience.

Complexity v Complicated: Why it's important that leaders and managers understand the difference

Complexity v Complicated: Why it's important that leaders and managers understand the difference

What is complexity, how does it differs from complicated and why it matters that you understand the difference

 
Systems
The first thing to understand when we use the term complex or complexity is that we tend to be referring to a system like an organisation, an ant colony or an economic system like the world economy or the economy of a country. Some systems however are not complex, rather they are complicated like an engine a car or even a traffic flow for example. So whilst a car can be described as a system it is complicated and not complex. So what makes an economy or organisation complex and not a car?
 
In order for a system to be complex it needs to have a number of features not found in complicated systems. 
 
Autonomous entities
The first is that the system needs to be made up of a diverse set of entities which are autonomous entities in their own right, like people and that they can and do interact and respond to each other. 
 
Tipping points and sudden change
The second defining characteristic of complex systems is that they will often have tipping points where sudden and dramatic change or even complete breakdown can and will occur, particularly after periods of relative stability. What this means is that in a complex system as opposed to a more stable complicated system, the collective behaviour is non-linear. Just because x has happened every time y has occurred in the past does not mean this will continue in a complex system. Indeed at some point it most probably won't. 
 
Lack of predictability 
This then leads to another point about complex systems, is that it is almost impossible to accurately predict the future of them. It is very easy to be fooled into thinking that things are predictable in a complex system, however there will come a point where chaos takes over again, if only for a while. 
 
Evolution 
Another characteristic of complex systems that differentiates them from complicated systems is that they evolve and develop on their own without there being a set out and defined goal or direction. It's kind of a trial and error unplanned development over time. What this means in turn is that complex systems display what are known as emergent properties.
 
Emergent properties 
These are behaviours and attributes which are more than the sum of their parts. They are difficult if not impossible to predict and cannot be derived simply by observing the individual parts. For example human consciousness cannot be derived from examining the body or even the brain at a mole tear level. Consciousness is an emergent property that cannot be directly predicted by looking at constituent parts of the system. It is only when the system is operating that the emergent property becomes apparent. 
 
The breakdown of cause and effect 
As mentioned above complex systems have limited predictability. It is possible over limited periods of time to be fooled into thinking that there is predictability, however there will likely come a time when the percieved cause and effect breaks down. 
 
Small event, large effect
Another feature of complex systems that often small events can have large impacts. So if a system is close to a tipping point, even though this might not be noticeable, a small change can have a sudden and dramatic effect across the whole system. 
 
Self organising 
A particularly defining characteristic of a complex system is that they are largely self organising. There is no real central management, or that, what appears to be centralised management, actually turns out not to have the control previously thought once a tipping point is reached. 
 
Uncertainty
All this means that when you start to really examine a complex system there is a large element of uncertainty and frequently paradoxes exist within the system. It is often this uncertainty which causes uncomfortable reactions within people. 
 
Complicated 
A complicated system on the other hand is usually made up of interdependent entities that do not operate autonomously, rather they have been designed to operate in concert to produce a particular outcome or process. They are likely only to produce change when one of more of its components fail and the output is almost always predictable, which means that cause and effect can reliably diagnosed. As a result emergent properties will not occur. In effect the whole will be the sum of the parts. A major difference is the management of a complicated system. The system will have been designed so that the components cannot act independently, they will be tightly designed and managed to produce just the outcome desired. Just like a car engine.
 
The problem 
A major problem is that people often confuse the two and assume they have a complicated system (never though they use the terms interchangeably). For example most people assume organisations have the characteristics of a complicated system and try to manage and design interactions and processes based on that assumption and are then surprised when they don't work as predicted or desired. Understanding what it means that you are working in a complex environment changes the nature of the decisions you are going to make, as opposed to assuming you are in a complicated system.
 
Agile leadership
Understanding that you are operating in or with a complex system means that you need a different set of approaches understandings and reactions to when you are operating in a system that is complicated. Understanding the difference is essential to successfully operating in complex scenarios. Additionally it is the complex that is the arena of the agile leader, for it is the agile leader that helps the organisation and its people navigate and work with complex environments and situations.
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