Thoughts on explaining complexity vs. the complicated

Simple problem

Baking a cake. To be successful you need a recipe and a belief that the recipe is tried, tested and accurate. No particular expertise is required, however cooking experience probably increases success rate. It’s important that you follow the recipe precisely as it has been tested many times before. If you do so the results are you will end up with a cake.

Complicated problem

Sending a rocket to the moon involves multiple recipes, formulae and procedures that are specified and must be followed in an exact order. If you follow procedures, over time there is an increased predictability of success. Each rocket increases the likelihood of the next being just as successful, because there are fewer and fewer variables and less unpredictable events.

Complex problem

Raising a child…. a possibility that emerges into something wholly unpredictable. Believe me, I speak from personal experience…

Raising a child is less predictable, and raising two or more even more so. Following rigid protocols in child rearing may have limited application and may also be counterproductive. Why? Because every child is unique and must be understood as an individual. The environment that they grow up in will be different from the other children (e.g. birth order and environment at school/mix of friends/different teachers/different hobbies…).

Raising one child provides experience, but provides no guarantees the same approach will work with the next child. As a parent you remain uncertain of the outcome throughout the process because you can’t separate the parts from the whole, the child from its environment. The essence of raising a child may have some ingredients of systems, structures and protocols, but it’s the relationship between people, experiences and moments in time…what this means is the future is unpredictable.

Complicated & Complex Systems adapted from Tanser 2018 & Zimmerman 1999

Multiply up the variables to the scale of an organisation, try to codify and control everything that goes on, and your supercomputer brain will start to fail. 

How would you define your organisation? Simple, complicated or complex? How are you navigating your through your situation? Often the most complex systems utilise the simplest of rules to navigate through complexity.

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