Complex? Complicated? But they’re the same, right?

More than once, I find myself in a discussion about the words complicated and complex. This usually happens in a business or organisational context, because that is where we distinguish between complicated and complex. I’m not entirely sure, but I think this comes from the Cynefin Framework, and you may have seen an image resembling the following in relation to it:

David Snowden — CC BY-SA 3.0 — https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

In order to distinguish between complex and complicated, the following example is often given.

Chess is a Complicated game. While it is fiendishly difficult to play at a high level, there are no hidden surprises. The rules are rather simple, and deviating from them is not allowed. Sense — Analyse — Respond is a useful approach.

Poker on the other hand, is considered a Complex game. This is attributed to the additional complexity of the human mind, the fact that not the entire game can be observed, and that nothing is what it seems. It is possible to bluff in a game of poker, not in a game of chess. The approach as determined in the Cynefin framework is Act — Sense — Respond, because the relationship between cause and effect can only be established in retrospect. (+)

Sometimes, when I try to explain the difference between complicated and complex, especially when dealing with native English speakers who do not have an organisational or business background, I get the response ‘but aren’t they the same?’ This led me to look up the definition of both words, which you can simply do nowadays by typing ‘define complicated’ in a Google search box.

Here’s the first one:

And here’s the other one:

Hm, reading the first definition for both words indicates that they are practically, if not completely, the same thing. Yet, in the context of organisations the difference couldn’t be bigger. See for instance the following image, provided to me by Niels Pflaeging (from his forthcoming book Complexitools)(*) on Twitter (@NielsPflaeging):

Picture used with permission from Niels Pflaeging.

So, when dealing with Complex problems vs. Complicated problems, we start using completely different words and ideas. While this may not be the complete picture, I see merit in it. Once you’re used to this, the words Complicated and Complex start taking on the meaning as intended in Cynefin.

Yet, for English speakers who have not been introduced to this not so subtle difference, it may seem silly to use these words and imply a difference in meaning. I know that some discussions have taken place (e.g., on Twitter) discussing exactly this issue, and that is good. But we need to take care not to be complacent about the use of these words, and dismiss anyone who isn’t aware of the intended difference in meaning.


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