From complicated to complex – why we need to overhaul our ways of working for a new era

18th October 2017

If you’re wondering why processes, meetings, reporting structures and IT tools feel so incredibly clunky, you’re not alone. Many of our working practices were established for scaled mechanisation in a controllable environment rather than an unpredictable web of global connections and influences.

We’re shifting from one era to the next in business and the implications for our culture, way of working and organisational operating system are far reaching. The industrial revolution was characterised by mechanism and automation in which many steps were linked together to create an outcome that was identical in quality every single time. Over time the objective was to drive cost out and drive quality up in each of these processes. This required ways of working that were high in control, measurement and detail. This is known as a complicated system. There are many steps, but the outcome is usually predictable.

Now in the ‘knowledge’ or ‘connected’ age, there are many and unpredictable influences

The Cynefin (Welsh word meaning ‘haunthabitatacquaintedaccustomedfamiliar’) framework.

Harvard Business Review article by Gokce Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath offers these distinctions:

“ … the main difference between complicated and complex systems is that with the former, one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the starting conditions. In a complex system, the same starting conditions can produce different outcomes, depending on interactions of the elements in the system.”

You may have heard the term ‘VUCA’ which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It was