The Difference Between Complex and Complicated, And Why It Matters

Last week I listened to a panelist speak about the future of digital marketing. His opening remarks—“the world is a complex place” and later “the world is complicated”—were familiar, but I wondered what they meant.

When we say that something is “complicated” we’re usually venting about decision fatigue—what used to take one step now takes five. Think about watching TV today versus fifty years ago. In 1964, there were a few channels and to pick from. Today we plug in Apple TV or Xbox One to watch shows on demand. We need to pick between different payment options, provide credit card information and remember passwords.

“Complexity” is something else. In the language of researchers, it is a system that’s composed of many interacting parts. Complex systems, such as the weather, are sensitive to initial conditions. A slight temperature shift in Africa can trigger a hurricane over the Atlantic, just like a market crash in Russia can send a ripple through the entire system. The world is “complex” in the sense that small local changes can have large global consequences.

Here’s why the distinction matters. If you want to understand something that’s complex, it doesn’t help to study the individual parts. Traffic jams occur when a highway exceeds its carrying capacity. Alleviating a jam requires addition lanes, or maybe more public transportation options, but it won’t help to study the individual drivers—they don’t cause the traffic jam. The system does.

If you want to understand something that’s complicated, it does help to study the individual. Think about Netflix, iPhones, or gmail. They emerged from observation. By watching how a someone rents movies, uses his cell phone, and sends email, we can spot what doesn’t work and design better alternatives. Netflix would not exist if Reed Hasting’s only studied Blockbuster’s business model. He needed to feel the sting of paying those late fees.


If you live in a complex world check out Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barbasi and Six Degrees by Duncan J. Watts.

If you live in a complicated world check out Change by Design by Tim Brown and The Laws of Subtraction Matthew May.


7 Responses to “The Difference Between Complex and Complicated, And Why It Matters”

  1. David Williams

    no apostrophe in Reed Hastings You could write: “Reed Hastings’s study of Blockbuster.”

  2. Sam McNerney

    Interested in comments and suggestions about IDEAS within this post. Don’t care about grammar at this point.

  3. Eroc Peltola

    I think you hit the nail on the head as you described complexity as sensitive to initial conditions and irreducible; you should look into a behavior called “emergence”.

    Complicated systems can be redesigned to be not-so-complicated. Complex systems, not so much.

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