Published in


You say Complex, I say Complicated

It’s a mindset shift

Words easily used interchangeably have radically different meanings. Understanding the space between can help us move towards designing better technology — and transforming organisations.

Photo by _ HealthyMond

I often hear organisations talking proudly about their “large, complex systems”. A job search for “Java” and “enterprise” is pretty much guaranteed to unearth this phrase.

If, like me, your design values include the principle of do less, I’m pretty sure “large” isn’t a good thing per se.

When you realise the systems in question are more likely to be complicated than complex, these opportunities start to feel like an Admiral Ackbar meme.

What is the difference between complex and complicated? What’s the relationship to simplicity?

It’s a mindset shift. It takes intentional work to let go of complicatedness and evolve into the practices and disciplines of simplicity and complexity. We need both to survive and thrive.

What does complex really mean?

Consider chess. There are at least 10 to the 120 possible games of chess. That’s 1,000,[…114 more zeros…],000 possibilities. At least.

Photo by Sindre Aalberg

That’s a mind boggling number. You could play chess from cradle to grave and barely scratch the surface.

Now remember there are only six different pieces in a chess set and each of those pieces only has a couple, at most a handful, of moves. A complex system is made up of simple parts. The beauty is that each part can be understood, operates independently, and has clear interactions with other parts in any situation that comes up.

The system as a whole can have a staggering range of possibilities. You’ll never see all the combinations and you don’t actually need to. If the parts are autonomous and interactions are healthy then the whole will be much more than the sum of its parts.

This kind of system can scale almost infinitely, even whilst individual parts remain simple to comprehend. Complex systems are more likely adapt to unexpected conditions, reacting and evolving with natural pace.

What is complicated?

If you’re familiar with the artwork of Heath Robinson you’ll have a picture of what a complicated system looks like. Lots of intertwined parts that have to work the right way, every time, as one. There’s no autonomy and every piece must be carefully directed and managed to get a result.

Photo by Eugenio Mazzone

Unlike a game of chess, where pieces will naturally be removed as the game progresses, try to pull a piece out of a complicated system and it will fail suddenly, unpredictably and often catastrophically.

Take the example of a classic cash register. A mechanical system that’s relatively simple. At that scale it’s pretty successful. Now try to scale up to a much more complicated calculation and you’ve looking at Babbage’s Difference Engine.

Whilst it was masterpiece and a triumph on paper, it was impractical to build. From 1823 it took almost ten years (and a lot of government money) to produce only 1/7th of the proposed solution.

A working version was eventually built, from 1989 to 1991. Still three years in the making, even with vastly improved technology, but over a hundred years too late. This version can now be seen at the Science Museum in London, but drop just one cog out of that machine and calculations will fail.

Complicated, mechanistic systems don’t scale well. They adapt to a changing environment about as quickly as a fish out of water. As they get bigger, it takes a vast investment of time, energy and resources just to stand still. Often before the initial version is even fit for purpose, the world has moved on and there’s little to show for the the blood, sweat, tears and millions that went into it.

Complexity scales, complicatedness fails

Complex systems are resilient and adaptive. Given care and curation, they scale well and degrade gracefully when parts break. Complicated systems by contrast are brittle and require ever increasing amounts of nervous energy to keep them healthy as they scale. Even if they don’t break outright, they become grindingly slow. Pace leaves quietly by the back door.

Complex systems aren’t immune to failure, but as they scale up, the risk and impact of failure remains muted. By contrast the risk in a complicated system multiplies exponentially. Complicated works at a small scale.

If you’ve experienced the “release phobia” that surrounds making changes to big, complicated systems, you’ve experienced complicatedness first-hand. Increasing pressure to make change, increasing risk of a change causing outages and increasing regularity with which changes cause major issues. These are key indicators of complicatedness.

A complicated system cannot adapt fast enough, or at reasonable cost, beyond a certain scale

Or maybe you’ve experienced the frustration of a large organisation. Command-and-control design means those closest to customers and operations are not allowed to make important decisions at pace and at the right time. Approvals have to come from colleagues who are distant from customer needs, from opportunities for progress and who aren’t best positioned to understand context.

Ironically there’s plenty of desire for pace, innovation, performance, growth at the heart of organisations. Those of us in leadership roles aren’t mad, bad or daft. The reality more often is an anchoring to a complicated (command-and-control) rather than a complex (decentralised) mindset.

The system design of our organisations places aspirations of pace and progress systemically out of reach

If complicated is a big, lumbering dinosaur, complex is a herd of small, fleet-footed mammals. It’s a subtle, fundamental change: from Command and Control to Climate Control (credit: Sir Ken Robinson)

Digital Transformation: from complicated to complex

Digital Transformation is critical to surviving and thriving in the Internet age. Few people can articulate what that means.

I believe it’s a mindset shift from complicated to complex.

It’s the gateway to an abundance of positive indicators: pace, agility, engagement, hiring the right people, customer/user satisfaction, human-centred working and value creation.

It’s a fundamental break with industrial management practice. It’s frightening on a human level to walk away from what worked for you before , but it’s become imperative for survival.

Transformation is not optimising KPIs. It’s not getting better at what we already know. You can’t outsource it. It doesn’t happen at the edges, it happens at the centre. It’s an awakening and a coming to terms with the fact the centre cannot hold. A realisation that how we’ve designed our systems in the past — organisations, projects and technology — is no longer viable. What used to be the “right answer” now looks like a perfect storm. Digital Transformation starts in the moment where fear meets hope.

Whether you’re a director or a developer, an architect or an agile coach, Digital Transformation is letting go of a complicated, centralised mindset and designing intentionally for simplicity and complexity — decentralisation.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store