Complicated or Complex?

Is it complicated or complex? The answer matters, both in how we understand it and what we can do with it. Whether we are working within or leading our organizations, it’s a question to ask often. 


Here’s how to define the two terms: 


Complicated: A car engine is a system of connected processes where everything happens in a specific order. If an engineer can design, build, and troubleshoot it – it’s complicated. 


Complex: Monday morning traffic is hard to predict and needs to be observed to draw out useful information (hello morning radio traffic reporters, somebody still finds you useful apparently). If the best we can know is what happens on average, but never exactly how the next commute will play out – it’s complex.  


Once we understand whether a problem is complicated or complex, we can figure out the best way to respond to it. If it’s a factory style workflow question where the same predictable output is required every time, it’s a complicated problem. Bring in the Six Sigma or Lean consultants. If it’s a sales presentation with separate business to business and business to consumer pitch question, it’s a complex problem. Bring in the communication experts and behavioral psychologists.  


In Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work, he explains how our approaches and answers to the complicated or complex question shape our workflows, meetings, cultures, and work-lives over time. If we treat complex problems as complicated, we end up with fragile bureaucracies. If we treat complicated problems as complex, we spend too much time meandering and never getting much done. There’s a need for each, and that means there’s always a balance to seek out.  Here are some direct examples:


Meetings: differentiate between when we are updating status or passing instruction (complicated), and brainstorming (complicated). Allocate time and people accordingly.


Workflow: differentiate between when we have a clearly defined or dictated process (complicated), and a most desired outcome but some amount of variance, i.e. closing a sale (complex).


Budgeting: differentiate between fixed costs, i.e. irreducible inputs (complicated), and variable costs, i.e. time costs, hurdle rate forecasts, bonus compensation, etc. (complex).


Knowing the labels is a start. Bucketing tasks and processes is the next step. Finding the previously unlabeled (or mislabeled) is daunting, but it’s also the exciting part. Big changes can come from small adjustments. Dignan’s work is full of ideas we can all put into practice, wherever we are in the org chart. The future of our careers and personal lives depend on it, so let’s make it better. 


Ask better questions, get better answers.

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