I'm Smart, Why Is This Difficult?
Bold claim: I want to share a distinction that you will get immediately and never forget.
Simple vs Complicated vs Complex
Some things are simple - think of a door handle. You only need to look at it to understand how it works. There is clear cause and effect. You press the handle, the door catch moves. OK, maybe you need to open it up to understand exactly how it works but you’ll get it immediately.
Most things aren’t so simple. Take a car, for example. How many people know exactly how a car works? A modern car is a mixture of mechanics, chemistry, electronics, software, material technology and more. It is complicated. It is definitely understandable but you need an expert, or rather, a team of experts to fully understand how it works.
My background is in electronics and software. These are definitely complicated. Even a seemingly simple electronic circuit such as a battery and bulb, or a short software program, requires a certain level of expertise to understand how it works. And many times I, as an expert, have struggled to understand a piece of code! Even a piece I wrote myself! The point is though that ultimately it is understandable and cause and effect is still at play.
This is where it gets interesting. There is a step change between a system that exhibits cause and effect behaviour vs one that doesn’t. One that doesn’t can be described as complex. The trap we fall into is believing these systems are complicated - that we should be able to understand them. That if we are smart enough we should be able to analyse them and then be certain which ‘levers’ to pull to get the desired effects. “Beware the shoulds”, as the saying goes!
In complex systems the behaviour is emergent; it doesn’t follow clear cause and effect principles. Think of the patterns of display in a murmuration of starlings - entirely unpredictable when we observe a single starling. We only know later how these systems responded to the changes we made. It’s vital therefore that we are open to learning and applying that learning.
In my engineering career, it’s clear that most projects were complex. We would plan to the best of our abilities but we would nearly always have to adjust as we went along. There was always something that didn’t go quite as we expected and those things very often did not follow clear cause and effect patterns.
Leaders very often have to deal with complex systems. For example, every individual is a complex system! Can we know for sure what will happen when we ask someone to do something? To become effective leaders we use our best knowledge, advice from others, intuition and gut feel to make decisions and take action, then learn from what happens. The very best leaders are the ones who are most open to learning and improving - they have a growth mindset and recognise that they are dealing with complex systems in virtually every aspect of their work. They expect and anticipate that things will not always go to plan.
They recognise that they rarely know for sure the right course of action and they are courageous enough to act despite that discomfort.
There are real benefits in recognising this distinction, between complicated and complex:
It frees us to act - we can recognise that we will likely never fully understand the system and know which levers to pull, so we can look to take action earlier than we might otherwise;
We can go a little easier on ourselves, we don’t have to beat ourselves up when things don’t quite go as we hoped, or others expected;
It points us at the importance of learning and building learning into our business practices, such as project debriefs - with the intent to learn, not blame.
Where are you dealing with a complex system, but treating is as complicated?
This article is part of 100 Days of Creation, my challenge to myself to write 100 articles in 140 days, each taking no longer than 30 minutes to write and publish.