Complex or complicated? | Seth’s Blog


Complicated problems have a solution, and the solution can often be found by breaking the complicated portions into smaller pieces.

And complicated problems often have an emotional component, because there are parts of the problem we don’t want to look at closely, or deal with personally.

If you’re lucky enough to be handed a complicated problem, know that effort and guts can often get you where you’re going.

If it’s not a problem, it might be a situation. A complicated situation has no clear solution, no win-win, no easy way forward. It’s simply a situation to be dealt with.

But this is very different from a complex problem.

Complex problems aren’t actually problems at all. They are non-determinate systems, systems that change based on how we engage with them. Push on one part of a complex problem and a different part will change the system. Healthcare, climate and technology systems are all complex problems.

When facing a complex problem, it helps to embrace the fact that we’re dealing with a system that shifts over time. One where the rules and the solutions evolve in non-predictable ways.

Some ways to dance with the complex:

  1. Name it. If you and the team understand you’re dealing with a system, you won’t fall into the trap of treating this the way you treat other problems. We can’t fix systems until we see them.
  2. Blaming the complex for your little piece of the problem isn’t really helpful. Instead, we can choose to sign up to work on the entire problem, not just a symptom.
  3. Don’t turn away. We’re hesitant to sign up to deal with problems that seem difficult to solve. And yet, as our world becomes ever more connected, this is precisely what we’re called on to do.
  4. One way forward is to isolate part of the system if you can, and turn that part into a complicated problem that we can figure out how to solve. And then learn, evolve and repeat.


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