The Critical Difference Between Complex and Complicated

Featured excerpt from It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity for Business

Reading Time: 10 min 


It’s time to call out the real culprit in far too many business failures — Dr. Peter Mark Roget and his insidious thesaurus. Roget is long dead, but his gang of modern-day editors still assert that the words “complex” and “complicated” are synonyms. Unfortunately, as Rick Nason, an associate professor of finance at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business, ably explains in his new book, It’s Not Complicated, if you manage complex things as if they are merely complicated, you’re likely to be setting your company up for failure.

Complicated problems can be hard to solve, but they are addressable with rules and recipes, like the algorithms that place ads on your Twitter feed. They also can be resolved with systems and processes, like the hierarchical structure that most companies use to command and control employees.

The solutions to complicated problems don’t work as well with complex problems, however. Complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes. A technological disruption like blockchain is a complex problem. A competitor with an innovative business model — an Uber or an Airbnb — is a complex problem. There’s no algorithm that will tell you how to respond.

This could be dismissed as an exercise in semantics, except for one thing: When facing a problem, says Nason, managers tend to automatically default to complicated thinking. Instead, they should be “consciously managing complexity.” In the excerpt that follows, which is edited for space, Nason explains how.


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Comments (2)
A couple of years ago I came to exemplify complicatedness and complexity in this way: a car is complicated, traffic is complex. You can build a car or repair it, but you have to manage traffic, especially when you drive! You can achieve full visibility of a complicated system but not of a complex one. That's why rules can be used with the former but not with the latter.
Chris Lawer
I think we need Renaissance Organisations and not just Men (and women I should point out).

With the surge of design thinking focused on try-learn-adapt approaches, I argue there is a risk that organisations will increasingly suffer from an imbalance and ineffectuality, arising from an excessive lean towards right-side creativity at the expense of left-side insight.

Also, when framed as a complex problem situation, most problems are not wholly complicated, or wholly complex, but both. We cannot identify distinct systems. Consider something like obesity. It consists of a mix of different interplaying states of degree of complexity, some chaotic-generative and random, some emergent and self-organising, some stable, ordered and sustaining and some rigid and near-to or collapsing. 

In the same way CS Holling observed different co-existing states in forest ecosystems, complex social problems can also be seen to be composed of many “shifting steady-state mosaics".

This perspective of complex problem ecosystems consisting of different dynamic internal states of complexity runs counter to the dominant complexity science / thinking worldview that identifies distinct, separate adjacent system states, each with mostly homogenous internal characteristics. Rather, I argue that by acknowledging that multiple overlapping and influencing states of complexity exist and co-evolve dynamically within any complex problem situation, we can get a) much closer to understanding complex problem situations, and b) much better at intervening successfully within them.

By understanding the different states of a framed complex problem situation, it becomes possible to select the right methods, strategies and value propositions tailored to that state. Doing so helps to increase the probability that organisational strategy and innovation of products, services, technologies and other designed interventions realises sustained positive impact. 

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