Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Complex or complicated?

Humans like to solve problems. Whether it is finding the answer to life, the universe and everything or simply finding somewhere to have lunch, solving problems is satisfying. So it is frustrating when we cannot find a solution. I suggest that there are many problems today to which there is no solution or at least no single solution. These are complex problems.

Complex problems are problems with many interdependent variables. There are so many possible combinations of the variables that it hard to see what is going on. The variables are changing all the time as well and so are the interdependencies. Changing in a non-linear fashion makes it very hard to predict what is going to happen. There seem to be many possible solutions and all of them look feasible. The more we work on the problem, the more details we uncover and the more complex it seems to become. And the further away a solution seems to be.

Complicated problems at first sight appear to be similar to complex problems but as we work on them we see the problem becoming simpler, until eventually the problem is solved. However complicated the problem was to start with, we have untangled it and come up with a solution.

In short, complicated problems have a solution. Complex problems do not. Complex problems have many possible solutions some of which may be more likely than others. Some solutions may solve the problem for a while but fail when the variables change again.

When we have solved a complicated problem we can move on to solve the next one. We don't need to think about it again. Complex problems need a permanent structure in place to continually inspect what is happening and build solutions for the new situation. You solve a complicated problem but you cope with a complex one.

The confusion arises when we try to solve complex problems as if they were complicated ones. It is very natural for us to do this, since we want the satisfaction of finding a single solution. It is also much harder to manage a complex situation than to manage a complicated one, so we tend to prefer that most of our problems are complicated. It's easier that way.

I suspect that much of what is happening in the online world is complex. If follows that learning how to recognize and cope with complexity will be the key to success in the online world.

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