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Understanding the difference between a complicated problem and a complex one is important for today’s leaders. They require different strategies and tools that are largely not interchangeable. Sometimes a problem will morph from one state to the other—either from complicated to complex, or vice versa—so you’ll need to be ready to adapt your strategies and tools accordingly.
So what are the differences? A recent 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.”
For example, building a highway is complicated, but managing urban traffic congestion is complex. Likewise, building a state-of-the-art air traffic control center is a complicated challenge in executing a project, while directing air traffic is complex, involving in-the-moment problem-solving.