The World Used To Be Complicated, Now It’s Complex

You can call the environment of the 21st century volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, liquid, ubiquitous, fast-paced. All these things are aspects of complexity. Understanding the difference between complicated and complex is key to understanding the changes in management, leadership, businesses today.


The 20th century was complicated. The 20th century started in the 19th century. The 19th century was the century of the machine. The First and Second Industrial Revolution changed the way stuff was produced. Hand crafting was increasingly replaced by machines. At first these machines were relatively simple. Over time they became increasingly complicated. New materials and chemicals were developed. That increased machined production methods even further. Work moved from small workshops to factories.

Assembly line paradigm

Machines offered new possibilities. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that we discovered how to get the most out of the new reality that the machines had created. To really benefit from the potential of machines we needed a new paradigm, a new way to think, a new way to see. This new paradigm was brought to us by Frederick Taylor. Taylor was a man who’s entire life was driven by the desire to optimize. In the beginning of the 20th century he found a way to optimize machines and factories that enabled exponential growth of production capacity. He discovered that if you split the work it takes to produce something up into small parts, you can optimize the whole process far better than if you try to optimize the process as a whole. Small processes are far easier to optimize than complicated processes. Small parts are simple. That means they are easy to understand, easy to optimize, easy to execute. And if the whole is just the sum of the small parts, any optimization of a small part optimizes the whole. The assembly line was born. And it was a huge success. It reduced workers to dumb robots. So craftsmen objected, but the complaints of the craftsmen were no match for the exponential financial gains of this system.

Paradigm ˈpær.ə.daɪm/: the fundamental conceptual framework or model we use for interpreting events


The new paradigm stated that any big complicated problem can be broken down into parts that are easy to solve and adding the parts together solves the big complicated problem. This mental model offers huge benefits. This means you can solve every problem, no matter how complicated. Just break it down into parts, solve the parts, and then add it all together. The people who solve the parts just have to know their part. This means they can focus all their energy on learning one small part. This allows specialist to dive much deeper into a specific subject then if they would also have to know about other parts. This increases the problem solving capacity even further.

Think inside the box

This reductionist paradigm was so successful that it permeated our entire society. Our schools, factories, companies are all organized around specialism. Schools train you to optimize your performance in the little box that you have to work in when you enter work life. Schools train you to solve problems, not ask questions. Asking questions slows production. The only relevant question is how you can optimize your little box. You have to learn how things are done and then do it the best you can. The people who deliver the best performance inside their box receive the biggest rewards. The paradigm determined how we think, how we see the world, how we solve problems: with proven methods, best practices, standardization, splitting into parts.

Scientific Management

This system gave birth to the idea of the manager. Optimization of all the parts is efficient, but someone needs to oversee the whole. All the parts need to work together. Someone has to assign people to boxes and monitor their performance. Someone has to plan and control. Someone has to assign budgets, decide what and how to optimize, make sure the output of one box aligns with the next box. In large organizations the coordination of all the parts can become complicated. But the paradigm also offers a solution for that: you can also split up the coordination into parts. So you get managers that manage managers than manage managers. Each manager only sees a part of the system very much like the workers only see their part of the process. Only the manager at the very top sees the big picture. He is the only one who can formulate a corporate strategy because he is the only one who sees the big picture. Information is power. Nobody can contest the power of the manager because the manager has all the information. A typical manager has a span of control of about 15–20 people so management layers tend to grow fast in large organizations. In the 20th century, being a manager garnered more respect than being a craftsman. Today’s kids want to be YouTubers, in the 20th century this was professional soccer player or manager. The paradigm of the assembly line created this type of management, which we call scientific management.

Complicated problems

Scientific management works very well in a world with complicated problems. Complicated problems are problems that:

  • can be split up into a finite number of parts,
  • are solved if each part is solved,
  • have parts that have one best solution that you can find with research and measurements,
  • have parts that have impact on a limited amount of other parts,
  • can be solved in a controlled, static environment,
  • can be solved by getting more data and splitting it up into more parts.

Most organizations in the 20th century were organized around scientific management principles. Not only large corporations and government, but everything from the military to design agencies, from scientific research to churches.

The breaking point

There is a breaking point for the scientific management approach. The method breaks if we move from complicated to complex problems.

Complex problems are problems:

  • that have multiple interactive relations between its parts,
  • in which the smallest part can either have no impact or exponential impact on the whole (butterfly effect),
  • don’t live a static, controlled environment,
  • that are not solved if all the parts are solved individually,
  • that don’t have one best solution that can be determined by research and measurement,
  • whose success relies on require finding the right questions to ask on top of finding the right answers.

A complex problem is determined by the interactive relations between the parts that can create infinite possibilities.

Complicated (left) and complex (right)

Failure feedback

Splitting problems into parts and solving the parts fails if:

  • You have limited resources (f.i. time or money). Complexity would require more and more splitting up into parts. If you have infinite resources you can go on until the parts are solvable. But imagine you are on an airplane that has a suffers from critical failure. The complexity of modern aviation doesn’t allow you to work through every element and procedure one by one if you are pressed for time. You just don’t have the time for scientific management. This is not only the case for airplane malfunction, but in any situation where the circumstances change quicker than you can come up with solutions.
  • The solutions of the parts don’t match up. Imagine constructing something complex like a spaceship and every team has solved their element, but the relations between the parts are so complex that the whole doesn’t work. The relations are so complex that they become problems of their own. But the relations in turn impact the parts. If everybody stays inside their specialist boxes, if people don’t understand the whole, this cannot get solved.

You can still carry on using the scientific management method, even when you are attempting to solve complex problems. It’s not very efficient and limits the chances that you will be able to implement great solutions, but if you have the resources and the competition is not outperforming you, it’ll still work.


Until somebody else comes along and disrupts your business by operating under a completely different paradigm. In the same way Taylors assembly line paradigm disrupted traditional business practice, a new paradigm is slowly but surely disrupting current business practice. The new paradigm that is disrupting business is not really new. It is actually older than scientific management. It’s called systems thinking management:

  • Where scientific management splits problems up into parts, systems thinking management takes a look at the whole.
  • Where scientific management uses teams of specialists, systems thinking management uses multidisciplinary teams.
  • Where scientific management treats each part as equal, systems thinking management goes looking for the leverage points in systems.
  • Where scientific management puts all the information and power in the hands of the manager, system thinking management put the people in the teams in command.
  • Where scientific management focusses on the parts, systems thinking management focusses on the relationships.
  • Where scientific management tries to know the entire system and then plan action, systems thinking management learns by doing and doesn’t assume it can know the entire system.
  • Where scientific management has projects that end, systems thinking management’s effort is continuous.

We need both

Systems thinking management is decentralized, flexible, has a bias for doing and pays a lot of attention to communication. Developments like Blockchain, Agile and Design Thinking all fit perfectly in this paradigm. There will be occasions where a subproblem needs to be solved by specialists. So scientific management shouldn’t be discarded immediately. We need both. Systems thinking management was the underdog in the 20th century but will be the top dog in the 21st. The tables are turning.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.



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Dennis Hambeukers

Dennis Hambeukers


Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner