Complex vs Complicated: Knowing the difference really helps | Column

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

Just about any business owner or manager these days will tell you that the challenges they face are much more complex than in the past and the complexity is rapidly increasing. If you think, “Oh, he means complicated when he says complex,” we need a brief intermission.

If you simply consult a dictionary you’d probably be satisfied that complex and complicated can be used interchangeably and in truth until recently that has been the case. However, as the study of systems theory and complexity has advanced, experts in both fields are getting better and better at differentiating between the two phenomena: complex and complicated.

In researching for this piece I found an article from the September 2011 Harvard Business Review to be particularly helpful. The article, “Learning to Live with Complexity” by Gokce Sargut and Rita McGrath, had the following to say that I found particularly helpful:

“Complicated systems have many moving parts, but they operate in patterned ways. Complex systems, by contrast, are imbued with features that may operate in patterned ways but whose interactions are continually changing. Practically speaking, the main difference between complicated and complex systems is that with the former, one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the starting conditions. In a complex system, the same starting conditions can produce different outcomes, depending on the interactions of the elements in the system.”

Why the distinction matters so much to a business owner or manager is that if you address one type of problem as though it were the other, actions may be taken that produce multiple unintended and costly consequences.

Part of the challenge then comes in knowing which type you’re facing. For instance, it is unlikely that you would open the hood of your new Volkswagen Passat and think that you were looking at the same situation as you did in 1975, when you went around to the back end of your Beetle with “Volkswagen for Dummies” in hand and confidently set about giving your “bug” a tune up in your driveway. Nope! Today, if you did dare open the hood (it’s in the front now!) on that Passat, chances are good your actions would be limited to adding windshield washing fluid and getting out of there as fast as possible knowing you were in unknown territory.

OK, you say, I get it! Not so fast. The people who work for us are not Volkswagen Beetles, though for years that’s the way they’ve been treated. They are complex and powerful, like the Passat. Learning how to handle the power of people is part of learning how to deal with complexity. We need our employees more than ever today. As our businesses themselves have become more complex we need the complex thinking abilities our employees can bring to bear. This is one of the characteristics of complexity—interdependency. Interdependency implies mutuality and need. Far too many employers still hold to a perspective of the owner or manager as benevolent dictator, resisting the evolution towards complexity that has occurred in business.

Recently a manager told me he was having trouble with some of his direct reports. They were not doing what he asked them to do. I asked, “Did they say they would?” He looked at me like I was speaking a language he did not understand. “Should I have to ask if they are going to do it? I am their boss.”

Therein lies the problem. This manager was operating from a memory of his role when things were less complex and jobs were complicated at best. Nowadays, an order or demand from a manager or business owner is delivered into a complex network of overlapping commitments (this is the true nature of most jobs today). That order/demand is processed by a human being who is after all a complex system finally being asked to perform like one after decades of being asked to simply follow directions. That human complex system immediately sets about weighing and analyzing this input against all other competing requests, responsibilities and demands to determine how to prioritize the order. And so on. If he doesn’t get this, the manager can draw any number of incorrect conclusions: the employees are insubordinate, they are lazy, they are a “younger generation with a different work ethic,” etc.

That manager and I sorted the issue out pretty quickly. He recognized that the limitations of his perspective might need a “tune up.”

If you are a business owner you can take this little example, multiply by infinity and get some understanding of the complexity involved in running a business today. You cannot do it alone; it is time to learn to be interdependent with your employees.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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