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Complexity is a bit Complicated

Complexity is not the same as complicated. To some, it might be semantics, but I do not think so. The difference might just explain:

  1. Why organizational silos still exist and will continue to exist,
  2. Why customer journey’s (and experiences) are fragmented

The  difference is this: Complicated speaks to the number of elements within a system, Complex speaks to the dependence, more specifically, the interdependence between two elements or among many elements of a system.

Taken from “Complex Adaptive Systems” by John H. Miller and Scott E. Page:

“Complexity is a deep property of a system, whereas complication is not. A complex system dies when an element is removed, but complicated ones continue to live on, albeit slightly compromised.”

So What, you might say. I am creating a nuance where one does not exist, making the whole topic, well, more complex…  Let me try and explain. There is child’s game that we used to play (there are few of them that fit this description actually) where in each turn the player needs to take out one block hoping that the tower does not collapse. If it collapses, you lose. In the beginning, the blocks represent a complicated system, the removal of one element does not alter the integrity of the whole. As the game progresses however, the dependence between the elements increases until the removal of an element causes the whole thing to fall down. The system progressed from complicated to complex.

So What?

Well, let’s think this from a customer journeys and customer experiences perspective. Organizations provide dozens of touch-points for their customers; in-person, phone, email, Web, Social (Facebook, Twitter, Community…) and many more. The customer experience correlates to their journey with each touch-point adding some facet to the overall experience. This could be deemed a complicated ecosystem of touch-points, take one away and the system keeps working, though not as well as it did before. Here is the problem, if you create dependencies between and among the touch-points there is a risk of the whole thing collapsing if one falls down. For example, if you use a link shortener (say bit.ly) embedded in an email newsletter that points to a YouTube video, how many failure points exist and which are in your direct control after you hit ‘send’?

What about the next generation of business, a Social Business. I myself have written and talked about breaking down the silos, collaborate with others within your organization, different departments and all that good stuff. But wait, did we just alter the risk factor? Did it get better or worse. Once the silos are broken down, and their is a dependence created, there is risk, right? A manager from another department could reassign a resource or customer service is now dependent on engineering to answer a question. As organizations become less complicated, do they become more complex? What do the dependencies now created do to the greater organization, the goals and the strategy. This is not a rhetorical question, I would like some help. I have written about both collaboration and coordination, with the later more important in this context.

What does it mean

It means simply that the interconnection points (the lines on most diagrams) are the complex things and the ones that are most important. If one of the lines is workflow, that needs careful planning and attention. If one of the lines is communication between two people, two departments or two pieces of technology make sure you understand exactly what dependencies have been created between the two elements. On the one hand, you might tightened a gap, made things more efficient, on the other hand, you might have created a risk, a single point of failure. From my vantage point, businesses have always been complicated, now they are really complex.

Please share your thoughts, thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kelly Craft July 19, 2012, 12:53 PM

    Well thought out, Mitch. I do agree that there can be more potential for risk based on dependencies, but as with most other things, I’d still advocate that multiple overlapping intersections – if well planned and monitored – are more valuable than any event, communication or data in offered or held in isolation.

    I’m pondering this this passage:

    “Once the silos are broken down, and their is a dependence created, there is risk, right? A manager from another department could reassign a resource or customer service is now dependent on engineering to answer a question.”

    Doesn’t the provision of well executed platforms for collaboration include abilities to have Communication, information and work tasks flow well even if resources are reassigned? Likewise, aren’t we doing our best to set things up so that answers from engineering are already well currated, which often lessens dependency (and wait time for answers)?

    I do understand and agree on failure points. In both instances above, there are sure to be the potential for breakages, but, I’d like to think it is part of our job to design simple use collaboration capabilities with the really complex stuff hidden away from the users?

    Just read a fantastic post on BPM that ties in well with my take on the topic of complexity – specifically in regards to process. I’ll quote part of the post here. (Source: http://isismjpucher.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/process-maturity-versus-the-real-world-of-the-higgs-boson/)

    __ While we discovered in the 17th century that “light travels between two given points along the path of shortest time,” known as Fermat’s principle, our model theories do not explain how a photon/light wave knows which path it must fly to use the least amount of time (not in a straight line!) to its target. It just does!

    I propose to empower people to allow them to follow Fermat’s principle as described by the words of Pierre Louis Maupertuis: “The laws of movement and of rest deduced from this principle being precisely the same as those observed in nature, we can admire the application of it to all phenomena. The movement of animals, the vegetative growth of plants … are only its consequences; and the spectacle of the universe becomes so much the grander, so much more beautiful, the worthier of its Author, when one knows that a small number of laws, most wisely established, suffice for all movements (and thus processes – MJP).” __

    From my perspective, while there is much more complexity in this age of pervasive communications, there are still some immutable laws of business that haven’t changed and won’t. Simplified, most businesses operate to gain value by providing value. Can’t most risks be tied to either a failure to give value that results in value? Is it more complex than that?

    By evaluating each point of intersection on both value and potential risks, we might not be able to code/design/implement solutions for each of them, but at least we have a better shot at understanding the complexities and complications. We want to enable agile processes and communications, but I’ll also circle back to this particular part of the quote above:
    “… the spectacle of the universe becomes so much the grander, so much more beautiful, the worthier of its Author, when one knows that a small number of laws, most wisely established, suffice for all movements (and thus processes – MJP).”

    Basic business rules apply – and will always apply. Back to the bit.ly example – there is the potential for breakage, but there is also the opportunity for consistency across channels, better capabilities to measure outcomes, combined data intelligence. Does the risk potential outweigh the benefits? That’s the never-ending question that’s driven business strategies for eons.

    Has it really changed all that much with new intersections? I’m not sure that I believe it has.

  • Mitch Lieberman July 20, 2012, 5:27 AM


    Great comments and observations – Max’s post is interesting as well. part business, part physics, part politics? He is a very smart man. I try to come up with unique similes or metaphors, but to bring Higgs Boson into the world of BPM is impressive.

    I did beat around the bush a little in this post and what I believe to be the biggest risk fact is accountability. People in certain departments are very used to the concepts of SLA or SLO, while other departments and people to do not operate on such metrics and are not used to being ‘close to the customer’ they prefer to be at arms length.

    The passage you question does not do a good enough job explaining that, so you are right it is a bit off. My simple advice / guidance is that as we shift from rigid process to open collaboration there might be a stop along the way called coordination which helps bridge the accountability gap. Email is a rigid form of an activity stream (call it 1.0) – but at least when my name is on the ‘To’ line I know I need to do something – now it seems everyone’s name is on the ‘CC’ line.

    It is business as usual, it is about creating shared value. What I have found is that not nearly enough people within any organization really understand what that is and what it means. We have some education to do. The basic premise has not changed, but as we shorten the distance, changed the intersections, the risk profile is different, better worse, not sure. As we make things more efficient (take Amazon same day) companies now have much less time to respond to an issue than before, just a thought.

    Thanks for the thoughts, comments and time, I appreciate it!