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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