The Difference between “Complicated” and “Complex” Matters

What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school? What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumor and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder?

Answers: sending a rocket to the moon and surgeons extracting brain tumors are complicated tasks while getting children to succeed in school (or, for that matter, raising a child) and the criminal justice system are complex.

According to York University (Ontario, Canada) business professor Brenda Zimmerman, complicated procedures like brain surgery and rocket launchings require engineer-designed blueprints, step-by-step algorithms, well-trained staff, and exquisite combinations of computer software running carefully calibrated equipment. Think rocket landing on the moon in 1969, doctor-controlled robotic arms doing brain surgery, and the U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning, smooth implementation of policies, and a clock-like organization that runs smoothly. Work is specified and delegated to particular units.

Certainty about outcomes is in the air the organization breathes. Complicated systems use the most sophisticated math, technical, and engineering expertise in mapping out flow charts to solve problems.

Yet even those sophisticated systems fail from time to time such as the Challenger shuttle disaster, Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the 2010 BP oil leak.

Complex systems like criminal justice, health care, and schools, however, are filled with hundreds of moving parts, scores of players of varied expertise and independence yet missing a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment. The result: constant adaptations in design and action. Recall the U.S. President, Congress, lobbying groups, and scores of interest groups trying to get a reform health care bill into law during 2010 in the midst of a slow recovery from the quasi-Great Depression of 2008. Or ponder the U.S.’s bungled efforts to build a democratic Iraq between 2003-2010 after the engineered “shock and awe” got rid of Saddam Hussein.

Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to get complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. See the complexity of dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan in this slide.

Or consider how the criminal justice system to avoid gridlock created plea bargains. Interdependent parts of the system (police, defense lawyers, district attorneys, and judges) adapted to overflowing court dockets. Just as adding financial management courses to the regular curriculum is how schools adapt to external lobbying.

Health care, criminal justice, and school systems even with their façades of command-and-control mechanisms, policy manuals filled with procedures for subordinates to follow are constantly buffeted by unpredictable events—picture a hospital emergency room, a kindergarten class of wailing and reclusive 5 year-olds, judges doing arraignments one after the other.

So what if schools, hospitals, and courts resemble spider webs of interconnecting strands than carefully designed and well-oiled machines?

One practical outcome of this distinction is approaching planned change differently. Those who run complicated systems (e.g., airplane and automotive industrialists, investment bankers, computer hardware and software CEOs) introduce change by laying out a detailed design of what is to be changed, step-by-step procedures to implement the change and overcome any employee resistance, and reduce variation in performance once change is implemented. Highly rational, mechanical, and smooth.

The problem for those who inhabit complex systems like schools is that change, conflict, and unplanned changes occur all the time. So do adaptations because of the web-like independent and interdependent relationships that make up the system. What happens when smart people try to graft procedures from complicated organizations onto complex systems?

Trying to toilet train a 3-week old baby is an absurd example of the thinking that occurs when a complicated solution (designing a flow chart for teaching toilet training) meets a complex problem (a baby that feeds continually, sleeps 20 hours a day, and soils her diapers repeatedly). Inevitably, the toilet training flow chart gets adapted again and again until the baby is ready to be toilet trained—a year or more later. Or consider a less absurd example of the pay-for-performance plans imported from complicated business systems to be installed in complex school districts. The pay-4-performance policy will get adapted repeatedly and, over time, will become unrecognizable to designers and promoters.

The answer, then, to the so-what question is: At the minimum, know that working in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural, not aberrations. Know further that reform designs borrowed from complicated systems and imposed from the top in complex systems will hardly make a dent in the daily work of those whose job is convert policy into action.


Filed under school reform policies

50 responses to “The Difference between “Complicated” and “Complex” Matters

  1. Pingback: Is “Complicated” To “Complex” As “Puzzle” Is To “Mystery”? | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

  2. Thanks for bringing some light to the distinctions between solving complex vs. complicated problems. Many of us have been raised in a world of miracle advances and breakthrough technology. There is a tendency to compare the lack of progress in the social-organizational sphere with the fact that we were able to put someone on the moon. “It isn’t rocket science”, right? The fact is, it is much more complex than that.

    In our rush to determine THE cause for failures in achievement we aim our guns at teachers. While this simplification may serve someones political aims (and fit talk show agendas quite nicely), it falls short of addressing the systemic and complex nature of the problem.

    As usual, Larry Cuban has provided “the rest of the story”. If we truly want to solve these complex problems we must consider the complexity of our situation and move away from simple-one size fits all problems.

    If it’s schools you want to change, the best first step is to visit one and see how complex it really is.

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  7. Larry, This is the clearest description of what I have been trying to figure out for a while. I work in the complex system of school and deal specifically with conflict and change. Many people I interact with have not seen the distinction that you made. Thank you.

  8. Brilliant, thank you!
    The best explanation, I have ever read about complex and complicated.!

  9. DavidM

    Wonderful explanation, thanks!

    Is it never possible to change a complex situation into a merely complicated one, though? It seems a touch defeatist to say that because you are dealing with a complex situtaion you need to learn to live with unpredictability and conflict all the time. To the ancients, the movement of the stars and planets would have been complex, but now to us it’s just complicated. Or go full circle to quantum theory and it might be complex again. The distinction in at least some cases would appear subjective.

    • larrycuban

      I do believe that it is possible to convert complex situations into complicated ones that could then be “solved.” That conversion is often done. Whether the “solution” works, however, and how long it “works,” is another issue. Thanks for the comment, David.

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  11. ronkrawec

    Isn’t one possible solution to change the game… to force adaptation? Systems will resist, trying to return to an earlier state of equilibrium. To extend the toilet training metaphor, sometimes you have to take the diaper away in order to get a child that is ready for big-boy or big-girl pants to start using the potty.

    • larrycuban

      I don’t think your example of taking the diaper away, Ron, changes the game at all. Forcing adaptation in a complex system, as you call it, is trying to re-engineer a complex process–toilet-training an infant unready for that to occur–with a technical procedure–taking the diaper away. What you get is a lot of squalling, mess, and the like until that infant is a toddler and more ready to wear pull-ups. Borrowing procedures from complicated systems and grafting them onto complex ones, it seems to me, has been unworkable in reforming schools and altering how teachers teach and students learn.

      • ronkrawec

        I think what I was trying to suggest, albeit poorly with my example, is that you can lead and change a complex system by introducing a disruptive change (as opposed to the incremental changes that are so often introduced and fail)… the result being there needs to be an new “strange attractor” (borrowing the metaphor from Margaret Wheatley). Ideally, this new attractor needs to emerge from within the system (not top down). Leaders in the system need to be able to recognize these emergent ideas and foster them, not allowing the dampening or inertia effects of the system to weaken them. To borrow another concept from psychology, the issues in the system can benefit from “reframing”. In India, the majority of toddlers are potty-trained 6-9 months before toddlers are in North America. Why? Perhaps they frame the issue differently? A real life example: Health care in the USA. It is unsustainable in its current context but is limited in its ability to evolve because Americans of all sorts frame healthcare delivery in the current contexts of liberty and independence.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the clarification and examples, Ron.

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  14. To me, you have it backwards:

    Sending a rocket to the moon does have a lot of small moving parts that have to come together, but each part can be broken down into a logical, physical system. This makes it “complex.”

    How a child succeeds in school is a subjective question with endless ways to define and measure. This makes it “complicated.”

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    • larrycuban

      Thanks for describing and analyzing my post on the differences between complicated and complex. I appreciate that.

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  34. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I stumbled upon this concise and precise essay on the topic of “complicated vs. complex.” Particularly “the potty training” example demonstrates so well what happens when the two clashes.

    I could not have written it better. So I decided to reblog it.


  35. rel

    This was a great post.
    Can you share any references or places I could be directed towards furthering my understanding of these concepts?
    Im currently working on a review of Complexity science and Systems theory.
    Any leads would be very much appreciated and quite helpful.

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