Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

What’s the difference between complicated and complex?

Complicated endeavours are built upon specialist knowledge and can’t be done by most people. They might take a lot of time and skill to do but are ultimately predictable processes. For example, a recursive sorting algorithm in computer programming is complicated, it involves variables, loops and recursion it’s not easy for everyone but it’s very predictable. Building a car engine is complicated.

Complex endeavours are those which have many influencing parts and events whose interactions are not simply predictable. Running a large software project is complex, it has people (who are complex) interacting in unpredictable ways based on events and stimuli we can’t predict. Driving a car is complex.

Complicated is easy if you can get the right skills lined up. Complex is always hard.

One thing that interests me is that humans are good at the complex, or at least we seem to be, after all most of us seem able to hold a conversation with another complex human and interact with communities etc. And yet despite our innate understanding of complexity we’re generally really bad at managing it.

Heuristics

Heuristic methods are those which sacrifice accuracy for the sake of speed. Essentially they’re a practical simple way of getting an answer that’s roughly right rather than a complicated time consuming process to get the perfect answer.

In software they’re used all the time to do (almost) 3d graphics calculations that aren’t exactly what happens in the real world but are close enough, they’re also used wherever a “best guess” is provided by a bit of software. Generally we apply heuristics to complex systems to be able to make timely observations or predications.

One of the problems with managing complex systems such as businesses or software teams is that we sometimes forget their complexity, believe the heuristics as fact, and treat them as if they’re merely complicated.


This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

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6 responses to “What’s the difference between complicated and complex?

  1. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « The Mac Daddy

  2. Pingback: Business Change: Rapport, Congruency and hypnosis « The Mac Daddy

  3. Anonymous June 21, 2012 at 1:07 am

    This is one of the best definitions I have seen of complicated vs complex I have seen on the web.

  4. Anonymous March 21, 2013 at 12:38 am

    I have been online for the past 30m trying to find a good defintion of complicated and complex, all of them were….., well long story short; yours is the best.

  5. shivangi July 30, 2013 at 7:35 am

    simple and crux… very well defined

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