You Don’t Need To Be A Brainiac To Spot the Difference

I think we can agree that the world became a more complex place in 2020. The grand irony is that I chose “simplify” as one of my guiding themes for this year. Little did I know that enforced simplicity was headed my way. Lots of things became more simple (i.e. staycations) while other things accelerated towards complicated.
Rapidly evolving circumstances pushed even more things beyond complicated, into the complexity zone.

Most of us think of degrees of complication. The first is simple, the second is complicated and the third is complex. Many leaders I know mistakenly believe complexity is just a higher order of complicatedness as if there is some sort of continuum.  Umm….  Not so!

I’m an ardent fan of straight-forward simple. Simple never really equates with “easy”,  but once achieved, simple is elegant and functional.

Decision-makers commonly mistake complex systems for simply complicated ones and look for solutions without realizing that ‘learning to dance’ with a complex system is definitely different from ‘solving’ the problems arising from it. — Roberto Poli

I’m borrowing heavily from the work of European scholar Roberto Poli, `who writes about Anticipatory  Futures and Systems Theories.

Most complicated situations can be compartmentalized, reverse engineered, and put back together in a workable fashion.

Complexity on the other hand is a whole different animal.

And This Is Important Why? 
Leaders and decision-makers who try to tackle complexity the same way as they deal with complications, soon find themselves mired in futility. It’s much like trying to brush your hair with a toothbrush or nail Jell-O to the wall. It takes an entirely different approach to mindset, skillset, and toolset.

As a coach and consultant, I often get asked to provide a “once and for all” solution to intractable problems that are mislabeled as complicated, when they really are complex.

While much of my life as an executive was in the context of complex issues, I can’t say I’ve always been super successful at it. After a while, the characteristics that differentiate merely complicated scenarios from complex ones become evident.

Being able to identify these quite often is the key determining factor in good outcomes.

Here are five differentiators to help sort things out.   

1. Identifying Root Causes 

Complicated: Has a fairly linear cause-and-effect trajectory where you can pinpoint the individual cause and observe its effects.
Complex: Characterized by patterns of multiple intertwining and overlapping causes. Root causes may be disguised as other things. There’s no real straight line cause-to-effect relationship.
Takeaway: Much time can be squandered trying to analyze root causes in a complex situation. Usually, complex situations in organizations evolve from a host of combined factors over extended time and aren’t quickly or easily reversed.

2. Knowing if there’s a Timeline 

Complicated: Has a finite timeline where you can reasonably predict outcomes. Every output of the system has a commensurate input.
Complex: There isn’t an easily predictable timeline. Outputs in the organizational eco-system aren’t necessarily proportional or linearly related to inputs. Small changes in one part of the system can cause sudden and unexpected outputs in other parts of the system.
Takeaway: Large and costly initiatives can have zero impact, while one misspeak in an email can lead to a chain reaction of revolt. Small “safe-to-fail” experiments are more informative and useful than large projects designed to be fail-safe.

3. Can it be reduced to it’s simplest parts?

Complicated: We can break things down and isolate structural components to better comprehend how things work between the various parts.
Complex: We can’t presume to fully comprehend all the moving parts. Because complexity is a shifting target, conventional approaches and familiar change tools have little or no effect.
Takeaway:  Complex systems are emergent, they are greater than the sum of their parts … we need to interact or “dance” with the system in order to influence it. We also need to understand that our mere presence is already changing things.

4. Is it Controllable?

Complicated: You have a bit of a framework or structure to contain and control problems while they get diagnosed and solved.
Complex:  Complex problems emerge from multiple random moving parts in an unstructured way, so it’s difficult to distinguish the combination of real problems. Even the smallest well-intentioned interventions may result in disproportionate and unintended consequences.
Takeaways: Fluid complexity is prone to bring surprises and uncertainty. Knee jerk interventions can bring unexpected changes and even new or worse challenges. Leaders need to shift the “problem/solution” thinking to “evolving patterns” thinking.

5. Are There Constraints? (Boundaries or Guardrails)

Complicated: Complicated can usually be defined by some kind of sandbox or context.
Complex: Complex systems are more open, to the extent that it is often difficult to determine where the system ends and another start. Complex systems are can also be nested part of larger trends, ideology, or movement. It can become hard to separate the system from its context.
Takeaway: Context matters, ignore it at your peril. As soon as organizations become too internally focused, the naval-gazing makes them vulnerable. Making sure that adequate and diverse feedback mechanisms are in place is a key strategic imperative.

Wrapping Up 

When dealing with complexity, keep expectations realistic. Getting to “maybe” might just be as good as it gets.
It will always take longer than you thought, and the end results may not be what you expected. From experience, it’ll always be worth the journey.
Complexity does demand a new breed of leadership. Today’s successful leader is relational vs. organizational, permission-giving vs.command & control. He or she works in overlapping circles vs. being linear and hierarchical.
Me – I’m still working on it. 

Until next time,
Stay safe,
Stay strong,

References: A Note on the Difference Between Complicated and Complex Social Systems, Roberto Poli, 2013