The Difference between “Complicated” and “Complex” Matters (Yet Again)

Ten years ago I posted my thoughts and ideas (many of which I borrowed) on the differences between complicated and complex organizations and why it mattered when it came to schools. The post turned out to be one of the most read of the nearly 1400 I have written since beginning this blog in 2009.

I bring it back for an encore because of Covid-19. In the past five months since lock-downs rippled across the nation, schools have been closed. In the past two weeks, the President wanted schools to re-open with face-to-face instruction and some districts moved in that direction. But with another upsurge of the coronavirus in many states, most school boards have fallen back to remote instruction beginning in the fall. Too many unknowns about the virus, disease, and its effects on children and adults throw school boards and superintendents back to the first commandment of schooling: health and safety of those in schools.

This back-and-forth debate about schools re-opening underscores both the centrality of this institution to the social, economic, and political vitality of the nation but also it complexity. Thus a re-run of this post.

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 Reforming schools, school reform policies

5 responses to “The Difference between “Complicated” and “Complex” Matters (Yet Again)

  1. Laura H.Chapman

    Educators who are doing risk/benefit analyses of the Trump/Devos manifesto to open-up our schools, are also drowning in FUD—fear, uncertainty, and disinformation (or doubt).
    Some fear that federal funds will be cut, as promised by this administration, if schools are not 100% open and with no on-line instruction.
    Uncertainty about the wisdom in opening schools is fueled by new reports of the potential for children to be carriers of Covid-19 even without obvious symptoms.
    Disinformation from the Trump administration is now routine, and that has helped to spawn doubt about whose recommendations are trustworthy. Someone has said FUD – fear, uncertainty, and disinformation–is a major strategy on this administration’s efforts to escape responsibility for the dubious distinction of leading the world in cases and per capita deaths from Covid-19.
    “VUCA.” is another acronym gaining traction to describe the problems facing educators and parents as they consider the reopening of schools. VACA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.” The acronym is attributed to strategic thinking in the military, circa 1991, and especially to the writing of Warren Bennis and Burt Namus on issues in leadership. In “Developing Strategic Leadership: The US Army War College Experience,” Herbert F. Barber described the aim of the 1991 Conference as defining strategic leadership within a “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous global environment…” (p. 8).
    Barber also stated that the War College derived these ideas from the writings of Warren Bennis and Burt Namus, and cited their book: Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. Most of the ideas in this book came from interviews with ninety CEOs not exactly the same as military officers.
    In any case I think the current environment for decision making by teachers and others who work in education, and parents/caregivers, is aptly summarized by the acronym. The meaning of the term complexity within this acronym is in keeping with your distinction between complexity and complicated.
    As an aside, I knew Bennis during the time he was president of the University of Cincinnati (1971-1977). I was then a member of the faculty and had students who were hired as babysitters for his children.

  2. I won’t be wrong if i say, for the first time i have really understood the difference. Great post

  3. The distinction between systems is very helpful (and affirming) for understanding education. This article was originally introduced to me in an instructional coaching course. Nice timing in bringing it back now.

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