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"Complex" - is it the same as "big" or "complicated" or "chaotic" or "unpredictable"?

Key Points Summary

Some key points when writing previously on this:

  • "Complexity" is quite distinct from (but may include) "intricacy", large size, chaos and uncertainty (e.g. complicated, massive, unpredictable, unidentifiable, uncontrollable etc).   
  • The focus here is on the interactions among "systems" and people (or "agents", typically many) - it is from those interactions that dysfunctions (or successes) most typically originate and are driven. 
  • Complexity relates to vulnerability to disruption - it confronts every human endeavour in one form or another in different cultures, at any level, in all sectors - particularly with increased networking and online presence.
  • The common feature of Complex problems is that "simplistic solutions are most likely wrong"
  • Complexity brings surprises and challenges.  Inattention leads to appreciable prospects of failure - - e.g. failure in competition, failure in quality, safety incidents, compliance lapses and costs, unmanaged risks, attacks on systems, lost productivity, employee perversity, customer and public outrage, escalating calls for prosecution or regulation - and equally important, lost opportunities.
  • Managing Complexity requires agility, alignment, and at every level of the endeavour, effective distributed leadership/influencing, capacity for sound, accountable decision making and governance 
  • Effectively managing complexity
    • drives value, eliminates waste and avoids lost opportunity.
    • enhances reputation and supports diversity and innovation - not just to satisfy an idealistic cause, but as conditions for success
  • Managing complexity needs to be practical - straightforward, readily internalised by all, avoiding additional structures, systems and costs

Continuing the Conversation

Any interested LinkedIn member wising to do so may join the  "Managing Complexity - Socio-Technical Group", to listen in or contribute further to the discussion on this or related "Managing Complexity" topics.  Watch for occasional "tips" and conversation.  

Related Questions on the significance of "Complexity"

Complexity (or "hyper-complexity"?) is everywhere, and can seem overwhelming, potentially disrupting our every best-planned endeavours; but it needs to be managed if we are to succeed; and to be managed it needs to be understood, at least a little, and acted on appropriately (by the front line worker as much as the board room). So:

  • What is it? is it the same as "big" or "intricate" or "complicated" or "chaotic" or "unpredictable"?
  • Why is it important? if I ignore it, will it go away?
  • How can it be managed - whether by identifying and grasping opportunities or preventing avoidable losses?
  • What are some core principles and techniques, often overlooked in the heat of the moment (when they are most needed), and can they be applied in a straightforward manner without unnecessary structures, procedures, people and overheads?
  • How can one gain greater insight into complex behaviours and their management? how can those insights be applied to one's own endeavours?

Recent Presentation

I was privileged to present in August 2015 these and related views at a meeting of the Engineering Australia Sydney College of Leadership and Management, attended by many aspiring engineering students and colleagues. The presentation applied concepts of Complex Adaptive Systems, and was based on "real-world" experience in different cultures, organisation types, sectors, activities - with roles in business, government and non-profits, ranging from emergency operations to long term infrastructure strategy, policy, and governance/compliance/regulation management.  It drew on multi-disciplinary perspectives and addressed distinctions among such commonly terms (massive, complicated, chaotic, intricate, unpredictable) [see].

 Continuing the Conversation

Any interested LinkedIn member wishing to do so may join the  "Managing Complexity - Socio-Technical Group", to listen in or contribute further to the discussion or related "Managing Complexity" topics.  Watch for occasional "tips" and conversation.  

It is important to not be too distracted by the precise definitions of terms.  Rather, for the practical manager, what is essential is the capacity and willingness to embrace and deal effectively with complexity throughout his or her endeavour as it is becoming increasingly networked and vulnerable to competition, sabotage, espionage, or other forms of intervention.    In the environment of complexity, “Disruption, Hostility and Competition will ultimately outwit Complacency and Rigidity”


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Management Consultants - practical, effective management in "hyper-complex" situations - systems vulnerable to opportunistic disruption - socio-technical, complex-adaptive system models - strategy, solutions, governance, contracts - risk and quality in infrastructure, dynamic, "end-to-end" value chains for government, business, non-profits; leadership, decision making and learning; history, qualifications.



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