Complicated Versus Complex

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Complicated Versus Complex

The terms complicated and complex are increasingly being used interchangeably, and it’s starting to bug me.  While they do have many meanings in common, they are not interchangeable.  So here is my short rant on the differences.

Something that is complicated has many independent parts or steps — such as a watch or the daily processing of payments through multiple suppliers in many countries.  Something that is complicated is not easily fully perceived or conceived in one mind at one time.  However, even though it maybe very difficult to do so, a complicated process can be reduced to certain identifiable steps in such a way that the outcome of the process is predictable based upon the inputs.

Complex systems are different from Complicated systems.  Like Complicated systems, complex systems are also not easily fully perceived or conceived in one mind – but there is also a clear difference.   In a Complicated system the process or inputs have independent properties — in the Complex system process and inputs interact, redefining other attributes and properties of the system.  Not only do the elements of a Complex system interact with one another, they do so continuously and in an unpredictable fashion.  In Complex systems inputs often interact in an unwanted way.

In Complex systems disparate and seemingly unrelated interactions aggregate and lead to unintended consequences.

Why do I harp on the difference?  It comes to “choice management” in investments, investigations, and life.

Mistaking a Complicated system for a Complex system will delay decision making, marginalizing the leverage gained from the early adoption of new ideas, products, and markets.  Mistaking a Complex system for a Complicated one results in choices being made long before the inevitable understanding that it cannot be fully understood.


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