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Complicated vs Complex

1 min

One of the most subtle yet important concepts for high-performance management is differentiating between a complicated problem/situation vs. a complex one. But wait, Omar, if you look up these words in a thesaurus they show to be synonyms of each other. What are we missing? This is exactly why I am writing this to clarify the difference and why it's important to lead effectively.

A complicated problem/situation is one where there is more or less a clear relationship between inputs and outputs. These types of situations generally have a known solution. Managing these involve figuring out the inputs, the algorithms/rules/recipes, and adjusting for these inputs to solve for the appropriate output. An example of a complicated problem is compressing a video - where you can either use an existing algorithm or create a new one.

A complex problem/situation on the other hand is one where the inputs interact with each other in a dynamic and adaptive manner. An example of a complex system is the stock market; an example of a complex problem is improving team effectiveness.

Why is the distinction important? Often time, we as leaders, mistreat a complex problem for a complicated one - which inadvertently leads to frustration and churn as we don't achieve the intended outcomes. When dealing with complex problems, it's important to first acknowledge that these do not have a singular solution, therefore we need to manage these situations by experimenting, learning, and adapting in our pursuit towards favorable outcomes. For example, in the team's effectiveness situation, we may try and adopt a formal development process as a first step, learn from this, and adapt this improvement (and other improvements) as we continue to assess and improve the team's delivery.