Complicated or Complex:  What’s the difference?

A fourth grader from Milwaukee Public Schools recently proclaimed, “Let me tell you why I love systems thinking.  It lets you do really complicated things, but it makes them not so complicated.”  In his book Living with Complexity, Donald Norman writes, “Complexity is a world state, but complicated is a mind state.  So if one spends the necessary time with a complex concept, it won’t seem so complicated. “  Connecting these two ideas seems to offer a strategy for making complex a little less complicated.

Few would argue that we live in a complex world.  Complexity is apparent in relationships, in changing circumstances, in business dealings, and yet we have all witnessed individuals, who deal with extreme amounts of complexity with confidence and positivity, while other individuals respond with frustration and bitterness. Perhaps, in addition to time, one thing that makes a difference is the ability to accept the complexity and apply a skill set that makes it a little less complicated.  The tools and habits of systems thinking are a valuable part of that skill set.

Let’s go back to our fourth grade systems thinking enthusiast.  When she is faced with a challenge in school, say a complex word problem in mathematics,  she has a choice. She can throw her hands up in frustration or she can use what she knows about problem solving, the structure of the math problem and even a few tools from her systems thinking toolbox to embrace the challenge and spend the time necessary to solve the problem.  Her successful efforts don’t make the problem less complex, but they do allow her to move beyond the mental state of, “This is hard,” to an understanding of complexity, that in school sounds like, “I have the skills I need to solve this problem.”

Grown-ups can apply the same shift in thinking.  A manger might be faced with solving a difficult problem among his management team.  Personalities, varying levels of work performance, a disgruntled client and even the image of his own looming performance review, could create conditions of a complex problem.  Not unlike the fourth grade math student, this manager has a choice to make.  He can focus on all the elements that make the problem too hard and too complicated, or he can draw upon a skill set that helps him embrace the complexity and devote the time and energy necessary to arrive at a satisfactory solution.

Life can be complex, but if in the complexity you take the time to consider an issue fully, identify patterns and trends, and consider unintended consequences, among other systems thinking habits, you might just find things to be a little less complicated.


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