How to tell if a problem is complex or merely complicated.

Have you ever thought about why humankind has successfully traveled to the moon, but companies still have a hard time figuring out how to grow faster than the competition? That we can make interventions using nanotechnology, but struggle to turn around the performance of a business unit? Or that we can build robots that perform delicate surgical operations, but we still can’t find a way to provide good and cost-effective healthcare?

Here’s the thing. Humans can master highly sophisticated technical and technological challenges because we’re very skilled at making linear connections from one technical feat to the next. But when it comes to multi-dimensional challenges, it’s a whole different ballgame. We can’t solve them with linear thinking or rely on technical prowess. Sometimes, they move and change at a rate faster than we can act. They don’t patiently await solutions. They are complex problems–which is a whole different ball game than merely complicated issues.

The most significant challenges leaders face today are complex in nature. They are issues like doubling the growth of a business, transforming a culture, offering a world-beating consumer experience, complying with new legislation, or stemming an epidemic. The problem is that leaders try to solve these highly complex challenges as if they were merely complicated, and that’s a problem.

COMPLICATED VERSUS COMPLEX

Challenges are either complicated or complex. Complicated challenges are technical in nature. They have straight-line, step-by-step solutions, and tend to be predictable. People with the right expertise can usually design solutions that are easy to implement.

Complex challenges, on the other hand, require innovative responses. These are the confounding head-scratchers with no right answers, only best attempts. There’s no straight line to a solution, and you can only know that you’ve found an effective strategy in retrospect. You never really solve your complex challenges–most of the time, you have to push forward and see how it goes.

Here are some examples to help you differentiate the terms:

  • Fixing a car is complicated; disrupting the automotive industry is complex.
  • Implementing a customer relationship management system is complicated; delivering a winning customer experience consistently is complex.
  • Rolling out idea management software is complicated; creating and executing on a robust innovation agenda is complex.

Here are three characteristics of a complex challenge.

1. COMPLEXITY RENDERS THE OLD PLAYBOOK OBSOLETE

Think of a football coach with the league’s best playbook and players who know that playbook inside and out. Now consider what happens when someone tells the coach–midgame–that he needs to transform the playbook because if they don’t change, they’ll lose. The coach can:

  • Ignore the instruction and continue to execute the existing playbook.
  • Call a timeout, tell the players to forget the playbook, then send them back in and hope for the best.
  • Call a timeout, and stand there paralyzed not knowing how to proceed given that each of the choices above will lead to inevitable failure.

None of these options is viable. If you’re our hypothetical coach, you feel like you either have to make a wrong decision or no decision at all, so paralysis is the likely outcome. What has always worked is no longer working, and making a significant shift mid-game feels impossible. Complexity does that to you–you knew what you were doing, but what used to work doesn’t anymore.

2. COMPLEXITY DOESN’T CALL A TIMEOUT

Think of the tortoise and the hare and the traditional moral that “slow and steady wins the race.” That may have been true in the past, but “slow and steady” is a recipe for disaster in today’s world, where the pace of change is exponential. You can’t afford to be the tortoise today, because the hare isn’t taking a nap anytime soon.

At the same time, you also can’t be the hare. When there’s so much to absorb and process, speed alone won’t get you there. No matter how fast you move, you can’t outrun hyperfast change.

Solving a complex problem demands a “tortoise-and-hare” hybrid approach. This means pausing to understand what’s happening, thinking it through, deciding on the new course of action, and get going again.

3. COMPLEXITY MOVES AT AN EXPONENTIAL PACE

Organizational leaders are battling wave after wave of accelerating change. Most organizations aren’t ready for this, because their founders didn’t design them to be. They have change breaking out on many fronts all at once, and just as they gear up to deal with things like a new talent strategy, a new imperative appears, like a new Uber-like entrant into their market. The traditional large-scale, 18-month initiative can’t keep pace.

Not only do companies have to worry about keeping up with change, but they also have to remain viable and relevant. In the coming months and years, these challenges will continue to come at a fast and furious speed. Complexity isn’t going away. Instead, it’s growing and accelerating. Solving complexity comes down to mastering co-creation in large groups. Handling complexity as if it is merely complicated doesn’t work. Getting better doesn’t get you ahead. Getting incrementally faster isn’t fast enough.

If you want to crack complexity, you need a reliable, repeatable formula for mobilizing all the right players and getting to results incredibly fast. The good news is that it’s not impossible to do so. But it starts with identifying whether a problem is complicated or complex, and understanding that you can’t solve every problem with linear thinking.

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