Complex or Complicated?

The naive and intu­itive use of lan­guage some­times mix­es and over­lays things that should be clear­ly dis­tin­guished. Pop­u­lar among edi­tors are, for exam­ple, the terms appar­ent­ly and seem­ing­ly. The for­mer means that some­thing prob­a­bly is in fact as it appears, while the lat­ter means that some­thing seems to be that way, but in real­i­ty is not the case. Seem­ing­ly (sic!) just as sub­tle is the dis­tinc­tion between the terms com­pli­cat­ed and com­plex. In prac­tice, they are often used syn­ony­mous­ly, or at best com­plex is used as the superla­tive of com­pli­cat­ed. The dis­tinc­tion between these two terms, how­ev­er, makes a sig­nif­i­cant difference.

The Cam­bridge Dic­tio­nary isn’t what it used to be, either. Nei­ther in its phys­i­cal appear­ance as a thick book, which I know from my youth, nor in its con­tents. The term com­plex is explained there as “involv­ing a lot of dif­fer­ent but relat­ed parts”, e.g. “The com­pa­ny has a com­plex orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture.” Work­ing myself in a large cor­po­ra­tion I also expe­ri­enced that the struc­ture is def­i­nite­ly con­sist­ing of many parts and con­fus­ing in the begin­ning, but the more you learn about it the more you under­stand it and there­fore it’s not complex.

A clock­work is com­pli­cat­ed for me, a car also and an air­plane any­way and the repair of these things then also. But that’s not in the nature of these things, but pri­mar­i­ly because of me and my lack of knowl­edge about them. For a watch­mak­er, the clock­work is not com­pli­cat­ed. Con­verse­ly, for me as a com­put­er sci­en­tist, com­put­ers and com­put­er pro­grams are not as com­pli­cat­ed as they are for some­one who has not stud­ied com­put­er sci­ence. So com­pli­cat­ed is no inher­ent prop­er­ty of some­thing, but only describes how I or my knowl­edge relates to it. Thus I can reduce com­pli­cat­ed­ness by acquir­ing appro­pri­ate knowledge.

And some­thing com­pli­cat­ed can be man­aged. That’s exact­ly what Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor and then Hen­ry Ford demon­strat­ed. Build­ing cars is com­pli­cat­ed and was espe­cial­ly so in the man­u­fac­to­ries of that time. How­ev­er, this com­pli­cat­ed­ness can be reduced by orga­niz­ing the work into small, very sim­ple steps for the indi­vid­ual work­er and, from the man­ager’s point of view, it can be man­aged and con­trolled. This is espe­cial­ly true when these work­ers hand over what makes them human and thus the sit­u­a­tion and orga­ni­za­tion com­plex, name­ly their think­ing and their free deci­sions, at the gate and sim­ply car­ry out the pre­scribed work steps. This is the log­ic of Tay­lorism, accord­ing to which even today com­pa­nies are oper­at­ed like com­pli­cat­ed machines in which peo­ple turn as soul­less cogwheels. 

Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached? 

Hen­ry Ford

How­ev­er com­pli­cat­ed some­thing may be, it is nev­er­the­less dead in the sense that it does not pro­vide any sur­prise for a suf­fi­cient­ly knowl­edge­able per­son (cf. Ger­hard Woh­land). A clock­work will always behave like a clock­work and if it does not, it has a defect that can be dis­cov­ered and repaired. It is com­plex­i­ty that cre­ates sur­pris­es and live­li­ness, even with com­plete knowl­edge and under­stand­ing of the com­po­nents and their interactions. 

To man­age a sys­tem effec­tive­ly, you might focus on the inter­ac­tions of the parts rather than their behav­ior tak­en separately.

Rus­sel Ackoff

Com­plex­i­ty is there­fore a prop­er­ty of a sys­tem. Our brain is a com­pli­cat­ed net­work of neu­rons and the bio­chem­i­cal process­es between them can be under­stood by experts. But what I think in this net­work, this text here and short­ly after­wards the thought of the next meet­ing or din­ner and then the urgent wish for a lunch snack and so on (yes, I used to be more focused!), all this is not pre­dictable and there­fore a sur­prise. Com­plex sys­tems are not just the sum of their parts, but the unpre­dictable prod­uct of their interactions.

There­fore it becomes sur­pris­ing and com­plex wher­ev­er sev­er­al or even many peo­ple meet. On the street, for exam­ple, where small dis­tur­bances result in large traf­fic jams, or in orga­ni­za­tions. As a typ­i­cal tay­loris­tic man­ag­er you can try to ignore this com­plex­i­ty in the sense of Hen­ry Ford, but it nev­er dis­ap­pears com­plete­ly. And that’s a good thing, because orga­ni­za­tions are increas­ing­ly oper­at­ing in increas­ing­ly com­plex envi­ron­ments and are more and more sur­prised. Or they sur­prise their com­peti­tors them­selves. Depend­ing on how well they are able to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment in which these com­plex parts, the human poten­tial or sim­ply the live­li­ness pro­duce bet­ter ideas faster than the com­pe­ti­tion can. This is ulti­mate­ly a ques­tion of lead­er­ship, and the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship offers suit­able solu­tion spaces.

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