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Complex ≠ Complicated

Most people view the words “complex” and “complicated” as synonyms.  And that’s no surprise - that’s the way most dictionaries and thesauruses treat them. But in the worlds of math, science, and systems generally - they are not.  In fact, as Rick Nason, associate professor of finance at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business, explains in his book It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business - if you manage complex things as if they are merely complicated, you’re likely to be setting up your company for failure.

Some might want to dismiss this as an exercise in semantics, except for one thing:  When facing a problem, says Nason, managers tend to automatically default to complicated thinking.  Instead, they should be “consciously managing complexity.”  And the first step in that process is to understand which type of problem you’re confronting.

Complicated problems require expertise to address - but as long as the proper expertise is applied, the attractiveness of complicated systems is that they generally can be successfully managed.  Complicated systems - by definition - adhere to a comprehensive and robust set of axioms and rules, and thus it is a matter of making sure that the proper models are being used for the situation at hand.

But solutions to complicated problems don’t work with complex problems. Complex problems are nuanced and require a more nuanced approach. They involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes. The one thing that will not work is a rigid, rules-based, complicated approach. Applying complicated thinking to complex problems leads managers to think they are doing something purposeful when in reality they are not, and in fact they are likely doing more harm than good.

Example:  Automobiles are complicated. Traffic is complex.

The other key distinction is that complex situations do not lend themselves to solutions, and it is folly to spend the time, energy, or effort to even attempt to create solutions.  Complexity cannot be solved.  It cannot be simplified.  It cannot be eliminated.  Complex environments, situations, and problems simply exist, and the best we can do is to manage them.  In fact, breakthrough discoveries in science - and opportunities in business - often result from embracing complexity.  Stephen Hawking himself referred to the 21st century as the century of complexity.

Photo: Reuters

"I think the next century will be the century of complexity."
– Stephen Hawking

Commercial enterprises face an ever-increasing number of complex challenges in our increasingly complex world. To successfully manage these complexities, organizations need an entirely new class of technological capabilities - those specifically designed to handle new types and large volumes of data, cloud computing, AI/machine learning, and a host of other advancements in order to make the best decisions in a complex world.

And that’s where we come in . . . QOMPLX.  We embrace complexity so you don’t have to.


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Excerpts taken from "The Critical Difference Between Complex and Complicated" a MITSloan Management Review blog by Dr. Peter Mark Roget who also references the book, It's Not Complicated, The Art and Science of Complexity in Business by Rick Nason.

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Published 3 months ago