Complicated vs. Complex

The world has always faced the unpredictable and unexpected. However, for the past decade it seems that major unforeseen events are happening more and more often taking a toll on all of us.

By Ruben Alcaraz

This acceleration of unforeseen events goes hand-in-hand with the technological boom societies around the world are experiencing & the emergence of ubiquitous informational billion user hubs — like Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn — that easily give access through mobile and many other web connected devices. Informational hubs facilitate public access to any individual topic, news or opinion (no matter how obscure) and makes this connection almost effortless. Some claim that the 21st century will be known by future generations as the ‘Age of Connectivity.’

This age of connectivity brings with it major deviations from historical norms… for example, in the past, all major events such as wars, revolutions, or rivalries were extremely public events that took years to unravel. Today, those look very different, events seem to emerge out of nowhere and spread globally in a matter of hours.  The staggering speed of events has rendered previous tried and true approaches useless. This has not just been a problem to businesses, even governments have been caught in situations where they were unable to properly identify the situation and react timely.

The uber connectivity has changed the nature of everything. An invisible informational battle is constantly taking place, interconnected technology is propagating /branching/breaking down information, regardless of the distance from the truth or source. Exploring and understanding these digital fields will become as important as mastering marketing, advertising and insights once were.

Before I continue, I think it is important to mention that one of the key benefits of technology is the gift of time. We adopt technology more easily when it makes life easier, simplifies tasks and frees us to focus on things we’d rather be doing. For example, it is conceivable that a person could buy a birthday gift, plan a party, send an emails, talk to family in another state, and read the news within a span of 60 minutes. This means that value of time is not constant; an hour today is worth more than an hour ten years ago.

Understanding that technology and time are conversely related serves as the foundation for what has been happening. Technology is an enabler for communication and has impacted time to such degree that coordination of events can take minutes. The days when a grace period existed between hearing about an event and reacting to it has been drastically reduced as the Egyptian government found out in 2011. Structures and methods born out of experiences from past generations are not as effective as they used to be when addressing an age in which information can spread like a virus.

It is understood today that connection is remarkably non-local, meaning that things can start in places well beyond our physical space and imagination. The scary part is that much of the world is not yet connected so we have not seen the full effect of time compression. Psychologically, this situation creates a constant fear of vulnerability and calls for new ways to navigate a virtual battlefield. To get there, thinking about and making the distinction between two very different sets of systems is required:

1) Complicated systems are often engineered. A cell phone is a complicated system. Their inner workings may be difficult to grasp but their outcomes can be reliably reproduced and their outputs are fully predictable. It is possible, with enough time and help, for most people to systematically figure its inner workings and assembly out. In other words, complicated things have fixed rules that can be systematically understood by taking them apart and analyzing their details.

2) Complex systems are similar to complicated systems in that they also have many components but this is where the similarity ends. Parts of a complex system are unpredictable and can never truly be replicated. Imagine a thunderstorm, we know how they start and what the interactions generate, what they sound like but we cannot predict nor control them — and may never be able to. However, ways to deal with complexity more gracefully exist.

A complicated system approach assumes a linear future based on past history, it makes life easy; but in today’s world it creates a false sense of confidence. On the other hand, a complex system approach recognizes that everything is in a constant state of change and demands hard work continuously. The latter way of thinking will be crucial in dealing with or containing the impact of unexpected events as these continue to accelerate.

 

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One Response to “Complicated vs. Complex”

  1. Ray Poynter says:

    November 7th, 2017 at 9:00 am

    I agree the world is changing and that we as insight professionals need to adapt. However, I would suggest that it has always been changing and that the nature of what Nassim Taleb calls Black Swans (major, unforeseen events) is not essentially different now than in the past.

    100 years ago the path of Russia changed in 10 days when the February Revolution (which was heading towards democracy) was overthrown by the October Revolution and Bolshevik Communism. Just over 100 years ago in Sarajevo Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, and 30 days later the First World War had started – events that moved much faster than the Arab spring.

    By contrast, we are in the middle of watching the car crashes that are the Trump Presidency and Brexit – both events that have been drawn out and made more destructive by modern technologies.

    I would also challenge the link between time and technology. Compared with 60 years ago, cars are faster, but average speeds in our cities are slower (because of congested roads). Digital communication is faster, but many people are concerned that we spend longer communicating than previously, and that we communicate less well (as in less effectively). Many people now find they need to turn email and social off when needing to work efficiently.

    I think the best and biggest wins will be for those who allow us to do more with less time without also drawing us into ongoing time sucks.

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