Why you need to understand the difference between complicated and complex for decision-making.

Written by Mattieu Theron • 19 March, 2021

This four-part blog series seeks to create awareness of the importance of using the right decision-making approach in complex situations. First, we need to understand what characterises different systems and the distinction between complicated and complex systems (part two). Once we develop this understanding, we will look at how to approach decision making in different system types (part three). Next, we will look at how we miss the complexities of everyday life, and the implications for organisations that use the wrong decision-making approach in complex situations (part four). Last, we will look at how we should approach decision-making in complex situations and how this can transform the way management and leadership teams create change and add value to our organisations, our lives, and the world around us (part four).

A time to reflect on management and leadership decision-making

Think of a recent challenge or problematic situation at work or in your organisation. Did you assume this situation or problem to be complicated or complex? How did you approach the problem, what was your decision-making process?

The art of management and leadership lies in having an array of decision-making approaches and being aware of when to use which approach. But has this art become one-dimensional and do we really know how to approach decision making in different contexts? Are we even aware that there are differences in contexts?

In an organisational or business, our assumptions of what type of system defines the context and how we make decisions within this assumed context have vast implications.

Unfortunately, our assumptions are habitually wrong. Traditional management and leadership practices and approaches routinely treat complex systems as predictable mechanisms – they assume a complicated problem instead of a complex one. This is not necessarily our fault. Humans have spent hundreds of years creating predictability and order. We love it. And we do it extremely well. We have learnt how to take the complex world around us, rationalise it and reduce it to sets of rules and processes. This has been extremely useful to us; all you need to do is look around to see the results. We have put humans on the moon and developed palm-sized smartphones more powerful than the technology that put us there.

Decision-making in complex situations

Inherent biases and habitual default decision-making approaches

We have been conditioned to be solution providers from an early age. In childhood all the way through our education systems and into our business environments, we are taught there is a correct answer out there and we just need to be intelligent and logical enough to find it.

The inherent assumption about organisation and businesses problems are that the systems we operate in and the problems we encounter are complicated, or that cause and effect exist. If we just identify the problem then we can use an analytical engineering approach and solve it. We are so familiar with this approach that it has become a comfort zone. Developing blueprints, creating fixed milestones, following processes and procedures, creating order and a sense of certainty – all provide a sense of security.

However, we are being confronted with increasingly complex problems. While most of us can acknowledge and appreciate this on an intellectual level, rarely does it translate into a different way of thinking, decision making and responding. It is easier for us to create perceived certainty than it is to accept the uncertainty of what actions are required and what outcomes will be achieved. Also, our understanding of complexity is often wrong. Many people believe that complexity is just a higher order or different degree of complicatedness, as opposed to a different system type altogether.

In most cases, people continue to refer to the systems they are trying to manage or influence as complicated rather than complex. In the words of Roberto Poli (and Donella Meadows):

“Decision-makers commonly mistake complex systems for simply complicated ones and look for solutions without realizing that ‘learning to dance’ with a complex system is definitely different from ‘solving’ the problems arising from it.”

Why we can’t create change in a complex world

When it comes to creating change, building resilient and sustainable organisations and businesses in the face of complex problems, our management and leadership approaches are often found wanting. There are three main reasons:

  1. Our assumptions about the types of systems we encounter are biases by a lifetime of educational experiences and conditioned into habits
  2. Our understanding of the difference between complicated and complex systems is misguided
  3. Our repertoire of decision-making approaches is limited

What can we do to change this?

We can overcome these short falls. With this blog series I hope to assist with this, to highlight some fundamentals and put key perspectives onto the table. Certainly with the upcoming post in this series I will help you to answer the question: “Is this complicated or complex?” with confidence. Upcoming in this blog series:

  • Part two: Complicated and complex systems, what is the difference?
  • Part three: How to make effective decisions in complex situations
  • Part four: Implications for using the wrong decision-making approach in complex situations



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