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Complicated Systems vs. Complex Systems

Complex organisations have always existed, but we have to admit that the level of complexity has tremendously increased over the past centuries, especially over the past decades. Complexity now touches everyone, and every organisation. This is something unavoidable, and that is the reason why companies have to learn how to manage it, how to live with it. The most important difficulty met because of complexity is prediction. In effect, today’s systems are so complex that it becomes very difficult to make predictions about what will happen in the future, even though in a close future. Interactions between the parts that constitute the systems are innumerable and this is what makes them complex. To be able to manage complexity, the most important thing is to understand that it is not the same as complicated systems. If you want to be a leader, you should be aware of the difference between complicated and complex. You cannot pretend to be a leader without understanding these concepts because they can actually define your business outcomes. In effect, managers often confound complicated and concept whereas they are two very different concepts, and the biggest mistakes come from this confusion. Complicated systems are easier to manage than complex ones. Indeed, complicated systems also contain many parts, as well as complex systems. However, in a complicated system, they usually follow a pattern, which make it much easier to make predictions and to manage the system. On the other hand, in complex systems, interactions do not follow any pattern and that is the reason why predictions about the future are impossible.


Nowadays, systems are built by many systems. Thus, systems are complex because in one great system, there are actually many parts that are systems themselves! At first, small parts were connected, which made the systems; but then, systems have also been interconnected, which made bigger systems, and so on. This was because of the Information Technology revolution. However, it is possible to use these IT systems to manage this very complexity. Thus, everything is interconnected. Business networks have become great and that is what made them complex. Vivek’s book, The 5-STAR Business Network (http://bit.ly/5-STARBN), explains the functioning of great business networks, and its complexity.


As we said, complicated systems follow patterns and accurate predictions are possible to make. Complexity is a little more complex, if I may say so. One of its characteristics is multiplicity: the number of interactions is difficult to determine, especially because it can be infinite. In effect, there are so many systems that are somehow interconnected that it became impossible to be aware about all the interactions. We are not even able to determine the number of systems that are interacting together, so how could it be possible to make predictions about them? The second property of complexity is interdependence. Many parts are connected and they form a system. Then, these systems are also connected. Consequently, every part of every system depends on many other parts and systems that can affect them in many different ways. Besides, if one connection affects many parts, the consequences are also multiplied, affecting again many interconnections. Thus, the multiplication of connections involves the multiplication of consequences, which might explain the inability to predict any of these consequences. A third main property of the concept of complexity is diversity. So many systems are related that they cannot be alike. The result is obviously heterogeneity. Therefore, these properties of complex systems imply many difficulties, including inexplicable situations sometimes. In fact, the consequences can either be positive or negative for your business because of unexpected interactions and interactions between systems that are already complex themselves. When all the results of all the interconnected systems and parts are put together (because results are also interconnected), the final situation can seem crazy. You may think bad results can come from nowhere, but this is actually not true because every decision you make is important. In fact, one decision-making has not one unique consequence on your own business, but it has many consequences (whether they are positive or negative, whether they are big or small), on many systems, organisations, or businesses. Although you cannot explain all the consequences of these decisions you made, you have to learn how to manage complexity, to limit the uncertainty, by making the right decisions. Sometimes, you might not see the consequences of your decisions, but they can be very important and determining, even if hidden and inexplicable. To summarise, the difference between complicated and complex systems is crucial because the consequences are not the same. Predictions are accurate in complicated systems whereas they are not in complex systems. Although you cannot understand or explain everything in complex systems, you have to manage it the best way you can, in order to avoid great mistakes that could be fatal for your business. What can be interesting, to conclude and summarise the concept of complexity, is author Jeffrey O’Brien’s writings. He thinks, “‘Complex’ is a synonym for ‘unpredictable’ – or at least not easily predictable”. According to him, “interactions are not linear, but emergent”, and he also says, “computers can help, but they must be augmented with perception, reasoning, cognition, and intuition”.

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  • Sargin Retrovert says:

    The main difference between predictable systems and complex systems is our approach to understanding them. We can understand simple and complicated systems by taking them apart and analyzing the details. However, we cannot understand complex systems by applying the same strategy of reductionism. But we can achieve some understanding by watching and studying how the whole system operates.

    What’s important for managers is that this also works the other way around. We create complicated systems by first designing the parts, and then putting them together. This works well for mechanical things, like buildings, watches and Quattro Stagioni pizzas. But it doesn’t work for complex systems, like brains, software development teams, and the local pizzeria. We cannot build a system from scratch and expect it to become complex in the way that we intended. Complex systems defy attempts to be created in an engineering effort.

    • Thompsan (SCM org) says:

      Sargin, Most of our research projects deal with modeling social networks, we are interested in studying how agents trade and employ knowledge in their decision making for complex systems. We are particularly interested in studying the structure of social networks that arise out of agents who exchange knowledge, as well as the dynamics of trends observed in such multi-agent systems.

  • Warren says:

    organizations don’t know properly about their structure which you explained very nicely in the blog.

    Let give more inputs-

    Simple and complicated systems are all fully predictable.
    Complex systems are not constructed, they are grown.

    When you manage a system, you need to know whether it is either predictable or complex. If you take the wrong approach to building or managing such a system, you’re either blow-drying your pizza or microwaving your dog. And chaos might unfold.

    • Stephon says:

      A complex system is any system featuring a large number of interacting components whose aggregate activity is nonlinear and typically exhibits hierarchical self-organization under selective pressures. Organizations should know about their structure.

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