18 May 2010

Complexity vs. Complication

This is a concept I've applied for years, occupationally and elsewhere, but I've never really seen it articulated. After explaining it to several junior colleagues and watching their "aha" reactions, I figured it was probably worth posting here.

My colleagues and I are 'problemsolvers'. That's not what we're called, and it's not what our organization thinks we are, but it's the main thing we do. We disentangle little forensic messes, solve small scientific mysteries, and pull people out of metaphorical quicksand; those of us who are good at it can see a mess approaching from a distance of months or years, and those of us who are really good can unravel said mess long before it becomes more than a furrow on anyone else's brow.

When you are a problemsolver by profession, you pretty much HAVE to be a "defensive pessimist". In the midst of corporate happyspeak and the Religion of Positive Thinking, you have to think critically, think independently, and consider What Can Possibly Go Wrong, because most of the time, with the world so real and all, Something Will.

You also have to be sufficiently realistic about human nature to accept that You Will Not Be Thanked For Noticing It, and You Will Rarely Be Acknowledged When Fixing It, but, once the dust settles, They Know What You Did For Them (if they are at all worth doing it for). And that has to be enough. If you're in it for the glory, you need to be elsewhere, because there is none, and never will be; but there can be immense, profound, and lasting satisfaction.

So how does this all relate to the issue of complexity vs. complication?


That's the first test you apply when sizing up a problem, because it's the one characteristic that tells you the most about how solvable said problem is going to be.

If it's complex, there's probably a lot going on, and lots of bits that connect to other bits. Cause and effect stuff, and lots and lots of details, and all the details are going to be relevant.


The details can be sorted out into a sensible conceptual framework. And the cause and effect can be worked out by someone who is good at pattern recognition - intuitive - AND, most importantly, once you "get it", with something complex, it tends to stay "got". And once you've "got" the complexity, the solution to your problem is usually close at hand.


If it's complicated, there's always a lot going on, and lots of bits that might or might not connect to other bits, or seem to connect sometimes but not at other times. There seems to be cause and effect, but it's hard to be sure which is which; and there are certainly lots of details, but they're hard to pin down, and they don't always stay pinned.


nothing stays put. As soon as you think you have the details sorted out, someone challenges the basic assumption on which the whole system rests; or someone else issues a new Standard Operating Procedure that completely contradicts the one that was in effect before.

Complexity, in other words, is a problem of connectivity. System interrelations. Once you figure out what systems are involved, and how they are relating, you've usually got a permanent handle on the problem.

Complication, however, usually arises from the exact opposite. Disconnection. Systems that clash rather than relate. Rogue factors - such as "politics", which is just a polite term for human cussedness: things ranging from self-indulgence and laziness through abuse of power all the way to major dysfunction.

If your problem is complex, odds are you'll be able to solve it, once you've grasped the situation that is giving rise to it.

But if your problem is complicated, odds are you won't ever solve it. It almost inevitably has its source in a person or a group; and there's likely to be little or no real interest in solving whatever underlying problems produce it. The reason this is so can be summed up by Stormchild's Paradox:
Decent people and organizations behave decently; thus, it is rarely if ever necessary to compel them to do so.
In other words, if you have to ask a person or organization to behave decently, you're defeated before you begin.

Learning to distinguish complexity from complication, and developing containment strategies for complication where possible, is the Professional Problemsolver's Holy Grail.


Blogger Cordelia said...

Stormchild, I enjoyed your post. Coincidentally I am dealing with a complicated issue atm. Like you, I have worked in organisations where systems have clashed rather than related and have been one of those folks who “consider What Can Possibly Go Wrong”, even though that was almost 180 degrees to my job spec. No, we don’t predict and sort ‘issues’ for glory, but when you say that:

“They Know What You Did For Them (if they are at all worth doing it for). And that has to be enough”

- well, sometimes even that doesn’t happen. If you oil the wheels well enough and constantly, they don’t notice. What is then ‘enough’ is knowing yourself what you did, and having that personal satisfaction, even if no-one knows it but you. That’s what I found. One more comment:

“if you have to ask a person or organization to behave decently, you're defeated before you begin.”

I agree, if you have to ask them and have no other plan. I tend to have a plan of some sort (knowing where they’ve broken the law, for example) before I ask. That reflects the complicated issue I’m currently handling.

Thanks for the post. I like your distinctions and will keep them in mind.

21 May, 2010 12:47  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Cordelia: Thanks for your comment, and I wish you luck. I've dealt with a few complications of that type in my former profession - they can be widowmakers. I hope you have the leverage, and either the authority or the backing, that you need, if and when you need it.

22 May, 2010 18:56  
Blogger Jerry said...

Great article. I just found this place and am looking forward to more.

08 July, 2010 15:17  

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