Part 1: Understanding the Difference between Complex and Complicated Systems

Last March I was driving across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge into one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Sitting next to my good friend and former classmate, I commented what a complex design problem the bridge had posed, with two major crossings and requirements to withstand earthquakes and carry over 240,000 vehicles per day. Being an engineer, she pointed out that the bridge was not a complex bridge at all.  While it was undoubtedly difficult to build, it was not complex. Rather, it was a complicated structure.  The engineers were experts; using their professional knowledge on build bridging and previously documented learning, they were able to apply existing design principles to build an amazing structure that has stood since 1936.

Distinguishing between a complicated and complex problem or system is not an easy task for most. As Sargut and McGrath argue, if individuals in a business are unable to differentiate between these two distinct terms, it will be very expensive for a business in the long run. It’s necessary the distinction be made because how you approach a problem changes drastically depending on the type of system. What is the difference between complicated and complex? Simply put, a complicated system is predictable if it follows patterns that can be observed. This leads to a system that is definable such that past behavior predicts future behavior.

As my friend put it, intricate is probably the best word to describe a complex system. Complex systems are unpredictable and sometimes undefinable. In a complex system the initial conditions can lead to different outcomes. The question then becomes how can we define a complex system.  The three most important characteristics of a complex system are multiplicity, interdependence and diversity.  Multiplicity refers to the number of potentially interacting entities, interdependence to how connected these elements are, and diversity to how heterogeneous each element is.

Manufacturing is extremely complex, with a lot of interdependent pieces.  If we ignore those pieces our ability to solve problems falls apart. At times we are faced with problems that transcend a particular part of the process on which we are focused. If the scope of the problem is not realized, our ability to solve it is severely impaired because we may be searching for solution that address symptoms and not root causes.

How do you solve complex problems in contrast to their complicated counterparts?

Complicated problems have blueprints; you can draw on expert knowledge and previous experience to create a solution. You can perhaps consider these types of problems the ones where you can open a textbook and find the answer, or in the case of a business, consult an expert on the subject.

Complex problems are not so simple.  There is no blueprint, no readily modifiable solution. The solution is determined on a case by case basis. When it comes to complex systems, no two situations are alike. Forcing a pre-made solution to a complex problem can bring disastrous consequences, since using the wrong metrics on a complex system can lead to inefficiencies and a false sense of security which I will discuss in another section.



1. Sargut, Gökçe, and Rita McGrath. “September 2011.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2014.

2. Walji, Aleem. “Complicated vs. Complex Part I: Why Is Scaling Up So Elusive in Development: What Can Be Done?” The World Bank. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.
Disclaimer: This work may not be modified or published for profit without written consent from the author: S. Adderly