Tag Archives: Harvard Business Review

Complicated vs. Complex


My husband is a pastry chef (I know, lucky me) and he often enjoys trying out new recipes.  He occasionally will go for fairly complicated endeavors, like a fancy dessert that includes many ingredients and several steps.

While I enjoy eating fancy desserts, I’m not much for complicated cooking.  I do, however, enjoy working in the world of complexity, which is different from the world of complicatedness.

If you’re unclear of the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the September Harvard Business Review.  The theme is complexity, and includes an article that touches on the difference between complex and complicated.  Here are some highlights along with my thoughts about them.

  • Complicated systems have many parts but they work in patterned and predictable ways.  Flying an airplane is complicated.  Baking a cake can be.  Complicated systems tend to give you predictable results, as long as you do the same thing the same time, each time.  (i.e., If you beat an egg white long enough with the right amount of sugar, you always get meringue.)  This is in contrast to:
  • Complex systems, where parts are interdependent, often changing, and where outcomes are less predictable.  These include education systems, organizational systems, and pretty much any system with humans involved.  Complex systems are dynamic—that is, they’re constantly changing and adapting to current conditions.  They do NOT necessarily show predictable behavior: you can do the same thing two days in a row but get very different results.

There’s a lot more to say about complexity.  One critical takeaway is that it’s important to the difference between complicate and complex endeavors.

If a situation is complicated:

  • The task at hand is pretty clear, even from different perspectives.  The instructions are not ambiguous.
  • You can see the boundaries of the issue (what’s relevant and what’s not),
  • You can reliably predict how things will go once you get started.

When you work with a complicated system, your focus needs to be on diligence and accuracy when following particular steps in a process.

If a situation is complex:

  • you cannot ‘see’ the whole, but only what’s available from your vantage point.  The ‘big picture’ may not be agreed upon, and thus the ‘right thing to do’ may be unclear.
  • The boundaries of the issue are hard to draw (where does it start? Where does it end?  It’s all connected…)
  • Its outcomes are less predictable.

When you work with a complex system, it’s good to:

  • Work with others from different parts of the system.  This helps you to better ‘see’ the whole, and consider ripple effects of each other’s possible actions
  • Set boundaries–even if they’re arbitrary—for clarity and to avoid ‘scope creep
  • encourage a culture of experimentation and adaptation: try one thing with the system, see what happens, and adjust accordingly.

Every organization, family, community and classroom faces its share of both complex and complicated issues.  What kind of situations have you been working on?  In what ways might  another approach be helpful?