Complex vs Complicated

Complex vs Complicated

What determines the difference between a complicated and a complex problem? Is there a difference between the two? Here’s my definitions (as they relate to startups):

  1. Complicated - technologically difficult, but with a clear path to achieving the goal. The technology may make it infeasible at a current point in time, but with iteration on the technology, the goal can be achieved. The litmus test I would use for this is, if I could change out the central piece of technology that this problem is reliant on, and make it behave any way that I imagine, would the problem be mostly eradicated? Another question I often ask is, assuming that I am making progress towards the goal is there a clear method to measure this progress?

  2. Complex - of or involving multiple domains, where the path to a goal is not so clear or precise. By “not so clear or precise” I specifically mean that actions taken by individuals pursuing the goal do not necessarily correlate to progress towards the goal. It is unclear whether or not specific actions will have any impact (they may even have unknown negative impacts) towards the achievement of the goal. The litmus test here is to ask someone who is trying to solve one of these problems if they have a clear understanding of how specific actions contribute to specific outcomes related to their larger goal.

So which types of problems should we pursue? And how should they be pursued? And who are the stakeholders? And how do leaders structure their teams to pursue them? And why does all of this matter?

The truth is, that large companies generally tackle problems of both types. They adopt managment structures that are suited to the type of problem, with more room to innovate in complex problem spaces, and more room to iterate in complicated problem spaces (in the best case scenarios). But startups usually start with only tackling one of these at a time, and it’s important that they get the structure right, in my experience. Complex problems require additional competencies to complicated problems, and sometimes the “disruptive” actions of startups alone can’t do enough to create lasting change in complex problem spaces.

Competencies are the responsibility of startup leadership teams to curate. If a problem space is complex enough in nature (actions do not equal results), the best defence that a leadership team can take to reduce the ambiguity of the situation is to acquire the competencies in the cross-affected domains of their problem.

Curious to hear of any thoughts or practical examples some of you may have. For legal reasons, I can’t share many of my experiences.


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