Business is complex (basketball), not complicated (football) and mainstream is finally realizing this

by ryanhvaughn. Posted on Sep 11, 2020    8    5

Author and former director of the World Bank, Steve Denning, interviewed 2017’s world’s #1 management thinker, Roger Martin, about his new book: When More is Not Better.


It’s a fascinating article, with two longtime mainstream management thinkers going back and forth about how the discipline has evolved from “maximizing shareholder value” (what Martin calls “the dumbest idea in the world” in his 2012 book: Fixing the Game) to managing holons of complex adaptive systems inside of complex adaptive systems.

In its simplest form, the craft of management is now being recognized by its leaders as having moved from football to basketball. From complicated to complex.

From Brave New Work, by Aaron Dignan:

“Contrary to popular opinion, among people who study systems theory, “complicated” and “complex” are distinct words with precise meanings. The engine inside a car is complicated. A complicated system is a causal system—meaning it is subject to cause and effect. Although it may have many parts, they will interact with one another in highly predictable ways. Problems with complicated systems have solutions. This means that, within reason, a complicated system can be fixed with a high degree of confidence. It can be controlled.

This is not to say that a complicated system can’t be confusing or inaccessible to the layperson. Quite the contrary. Understanding a complicated system, such as an engine or a 3-D printer, requires specialized expertise and experience. Here, experts can detect patterns and provide solutions based on established good practice. This is the domain of the mechanic, the watchmaker, the air traffic controller, the architect, and the engineer.

Traffic, on the other hand, is complex. A complex system is not causal, it’s dispositional. We can make informed guesses about what it is likely to do (its disposition), but we can’t be sure. We can make predictions about the weather, but we cannot control it. Unlike complicated problems, complex problems cannot be solved, only managed. They cannot be controlled, only nudged. This is the domain of the butterfly effect, where a small change can lead to something big, and a big change might barely make a dent. Here expertise can be a disadvantage if it becomes dogma or blinds us to the inherent uncertainty present in our situation.”

About time.

Business has never been complicated, despite decades of management theory trying to make it so. This book is important because once HBR talks about it, Fortune 500 businesses listen. The mainstream is recognizing what the edge has used as their competitive advantage for years: that business is complex, and the best way to manage that is highly engaged, empowered, and aligned people.


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hey_look_its_shiny 2

I have to admit, I was annoyed after reading the title: I said "those are synonyms, and 'complicated' just implies an added level of difficulty." But after reading through the post and doing a small bit of side-reading into systems theory, I appreciate this perspective. Thanks.

  ryanhvaughn 3

I'm glad you found it useful! Thanks for sharing :) I think those two words are confused often, and the distinction between the two is quite useful.

hey_look_its_shiny 5

Well, to be clear, I don't think the two words are generally confused... in standard usage, they have almost identical meanings. But, each field of study defines its own terms, often redefining common words to have specific meanings.

For example, as a noun, "complex" means a complicated association of related things, whereas in chemistry it's a specific type of molecule or ensemble, and in psychoanalytic psychology it's a pattern of thematically related emotions, memories, perceptions, and wishes.

So, from my perspective, the words complex and complicated are still synonyms, but viewing them from the specific angle of systems theory is also helpful because it provides a new window on how to think about types of management theories.

cha1upa 7

The football vs basketball analogy works but there has got to be something better than complex vs complicated.

simple_mech 2

Yea I heard this same thing on a Tim Ferris podcast, I think Brad Feld #448.

He didn’t use the sports analogy yet the complicated and complex words were there.