Complicated is not Complex

If you walk out on the street and look around, it’s clear that stepping off the sidewalk will require that you look one way or another – depending on what country you’re in. But the rules of the road and the determination of where the risk lies is self-evident. Anyone can know it after observing things. This could be classified as a simple context. Cause and effect are clear. And the logic of it all is available to anyone.

The same cannot be said for the pricing of an airline ticket or the calculation of  your taxes. While cause and effect are still in effect, they aren’t visible to everyone. Only someone who works for an airline in pricing may understand the logic behind the cause and effect. Only someone trained by the IRS will understand why you owe what you do. This would be classified as a complicated scenario. Cause and effect are still at work, but they’re only known to experts.

Neither of those situations or contexts are complex.

Ask a movie star how they became one, ask a singer songwriter how they became famous or wrote a famous song, ask a well-known internet famous celebrity how they did it – and while every one of them can give you an answer, the process isn’t necessarily replicable. Cause and effect aren’t prescriptive – they’re really only seen in the rearview mirror. You can chase the threads down and see how it happened, but it’s not necessarily a formula that others can leverage (even though some people sell those courses online). This is what you’d classify as complex. There are no domain experts and cause and effect don’t work they way we like to think of it.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because when you work in a context that is complicated, the goal is to develop expertise and domain knowledge so that you can “discover” the hidden rules and make use of them. People who think they’re in a complicated situation often expect that with enough work and learning, they’ll be able to handle the context and the situations presented.

But what if you put people in a situation that is complex, where cause and effect don’t work the way you think, and you think you’re in a complicated scenario? You’ll keep thinking that the right know-how will appear soon but it won’t. You’ll keep thinking that expertise will develop, but it won’t help. And you’ll waste a lot of time.

People who thrive in complex situations are better at experimentation. They understand that they’ll be doing a lot of testing, probing, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. They know that complicated and complex are two different situations entirely.

So I’m telling you this because if you think these are synonyms, you’re likely to get stuck easily, get frustrated easily, and not know how to navigate the situation effectively. But when you realize that complicated and complex are two situations (worlds apart), then you’ll know the right strategies for determining the next steps. And that’s what leadership is all about, isn’t it?

Complicated is not Complex.