Complicated vs complex and why it matters

When analyzing why there is a need for new ways of management, this oft-discussed question is still one of the most fundamental. Even after having read about the differences myself, I still never fully grasped its importance. That is, until I saw a presentation of a former colleague of mine, during which he described the Cynefin Framework with simple pictures.


With this simple visual explanation something finally “clicked” in my head, and I now not only understand why it is necessary to differentiate between the simple, complicated, complex and chaotic, but understand the different ways in which one must handle such systems. Here are the main differences, in a nutshell:

  • Obvious: The goal is clear and the way to reach it is straight forward. The best ways to deal with it are standards, procedures and compliance.
  • Complicated: The goal is still very clear and predictable and there is a proven way of how to get there. While it may be difficult, using best practices and conventional project management allows one to plan and execute to reach the target.
  • Complex: The goal is rather clear but might change along the way based on emergent attributes. Based on the ongoing interaction between parts of the system, the outcome is not predictable and thus typical cause and effect relations can only be perceived after they occurred. The only way to deal with such systems is through constant feedback and a common vision for self-directed teams (leadership).
  • Chaotic: Even if the goal is clear, there is no way of knowing how to get there. Cause and effect is put out-of-order and the only way to deal with systems like this is through trial and error.

The most important issues to focus on in business are complicated and complex ones, as those are the ones that have to be managed most of the time. In today’s organizational climate, everything is treated like a complicated system in that conventional PM methods are used. Unfortunately, PM methods don’t work very well when applied to complex topics. An easy illustration of this is when attempting to build an IKEA closet: The process of building it is complicated but the discussion you have with your significant other while doing so is complex :)

The main issue today is that our environment, and therefore the context organizations embedded within it, are constantly changing. Even just a few years ago the environment was evolving at a much slower pace, information wasn’t as ready available, and markets were stable. Nowadays however, information is flowing fast and is readily available, and competition and business models are changing regularly. Because of this, today’s organizations need to be treated as complex systems, both internally and externally.

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