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Monday, 15 August 2011

Complicated vs Complex Outcomes

I've been asked some questions on complex outcomes so I thought I'll blog it. Question: whats the difference between complicated and complex outcomes/systems and what's the difference between performance and outcome-based contracts?

Some of you who are systems-inclined/educated people would know the answer to this. Here are a few examples of complicated outcomes:

1. Getting your baggage from London to Sydney
2. Designing and constructing a village/township
3. Brain surgery
4. Putting a man on the moon

Here are some examples of complex outcomes

1. Giving you a good experience from London to Sydney (customer experience)
2. Designing and creating a community
3. Health
4. Bringing up a child

Whats the same? Both complicated and complex outcomes have multiple components and entities. They also have many moving parts that interact. But the key differences between the 2 are (1) no 'mission control' (non-determinism) and (2) emergence

Let me elaborate on this. In brain surgery, the doctor is in charge. in putting the man on the moon, Houston is in charge. in getting the village/township up and ready, the town planner/architect is in charge. These are complicated outcomes but there they could be determined with good algorithms, calculations, specifications, implementation - and there is a command and control structure. In complex outcomes, there is no mission control. These outcomes are achieved because they are co-created, collaborative, interactive outcomes that emerged from the system. Yet, very often, these are the outcomes we want - customer experience, communities (think facebook), nationhood, a family.

Traditional science and engineering has taught us to reduce everything and then put them together to get the outcomes we want. That's good if we want complicated outcomes. Not so good if you want complex outcomes because in complex outcomes, the entities are autonomous (think of the recalcitrant child, or the villagers), and the outcomes we want require collaboration and co-creation without any explicit control mechanisms. We would like our children to co-create a family, we want the villagers to co-create the community but we dont have rights, controls or powers over their co-creation resources.

Moving to the commercial world, that's the essential difference between performance and outcome-based contracts. Performance is complicated. I can get the performance of a supply chain of an aircraft by putting together people (who follow processes), processes, assets, etc. and I can determine that performance by ensuring everything works smoothly so that the plane is available and 'fly-able'. However, I can't get the outcome - flight from london to singapore without the help of the pilot, the engine, the avionics - usually provided by different firms or even the passengers (who may be late); so the availability or 'fly-ability' of the plane is a complicated (performance) but the flight from london to singapore by a plane is complex (outcome).

Does that mean we cannot design for complex outcomes?

Ah, now we go into my world. This is the world I inhabit. Value creating Socio-technical systems for complicated performance and complex outcomes. There is interaction between the two of course and often you can't really tell between what is complicated and what is complex. Achieving complex outcomes may sometimes lead to achieving good complicated performance. And sometimes not. Sometimes achieving good complex outcomes could result in greater complication in 'output' performance or even reduced 'output' performance - think NHS whose targets are hugely 'performance' and not outcomes (don't get me started on metrics.... sigh). What this means is that sometimes complicated performances are aligned with complex outcomes. Sometimes they are not because complicated performances could result in perverse behaviours leading to poor complex outcomes. Example? Easy. Imagine measuring a doctor's performance based on how many people he treats. Worse metric in the world (but many healthcare people already know that). It incentivises the doctor to 'treat' and count the numbers treated rather than maintain good health and well being in the community (which of course reduces the number of people being treated). you get my meaning.

So the first thing to do with any system is to check what is complicated and what is complex. What is the value or outcome each actor/entity wish to get from the system, how do they co-create it and how is each actor/entity's co-creation aligned to the system outcomes. Is the system outcome complicated (deterministic) or complex (emergent)? how are the complicated performances aligned with the complex outcomes? How do they interact? What are the resources to co-create the complex? or complicated? are they human or material (stuff)? who are the 'actors' or 'entities' that integrate these resources that co-create that outcome? That is the heart of where my current work sits. And why SDLogic (Vargo & Lusch 2004, 2008) is a useful lens for such environments. Some of my current research into contexting, enabling platforms have actually made some advances so watch this space.

Oh, dont forget the very human tendency when we talk about outcome to only like to talk about the 'outcomes' we can control. It took me ages in a national library project to get them understand that their true outcome is their contribution and alignment towards achieving the nation's literacy (which they don't control). they preferred to talk about their outcomes as book browsing, lending etc (which they do control).

Increasingly, we see governments, firms, institutions trying their best to 'engineer' or 'specify' so that complex outcomes could be achieved. to them, i say - 'which part of emergence did you not get?' We have spent the last 100 years doing complicated rather well. We can pat our backs on putting the man on the moon, doing brain surgeries etc. We are now moving to a world where complex outcomes matter and this is a new capability. This capability uses different words. We can determine complicated outcomes. We can only enable complex outcomes. We can specify complicated systems. We can only intervene in complex systems. Often, the best way to think about whether a system is complex or complicated is to ask - 'what is the outcome'; 'is it achievable through a command and control structure' and if the latter is no, then it's usually complex.

What has happened in the last 50 years is that we've been trying to use deterministic tools to achieve emergent outcomes, essentially because those are the only tools we have learnt (systems thinkers are still a minority unfortunately). We treat complex systems like complicated systems. we try to design, specify, impose, dictate when we should be designing, enabling, intervening, stablising. The former is a different skill set and have a different set of tools from the latter. And before you think that we can treat all the world as complex, we need to factor in the fact that we have built 100 years of complicated legacy systems, often with some measure of success. The politics and boundaries of complicated legacy systems sitting within complex system/outcomes cannot be ignored. We do not have a clean slate to design systems for complex outcomes.

Yet, if we want communities (think about the London riots and how important the sense of community and engagement is as an outcome), nations, experiences, families, we have to be much much better at achieving complex outcomes, both in its understanding (research) and in its implementation (practice). Where do we start? Fund my research. ;p


  1. Can't help but wanting to clarify some matters..wouldn't this mean that complex outcomes are born out of the interaction between complicated outcomes? Book browsing/lending does not cause literacy, but combined with other factors it does contribute in some way or another.

    From what I gather complex outcomes in the end "emerge" from an ecosystem of complicated outcomes e.g Apple gathering talents/resources/contributors from all fields in building a thriving App store/community.

    Also, just a Q: is the act of creating a movie, like a Hollywood blockbuster, a complicated or complex task? I'd say its a complex one, but I'd like to make sure to test my understanding on this matter.

    Sorry if I'm off the mark! Just a layman satisfying his curiousity !

  2. Great question Hew. Complex Outcomes could be configured quite differently from complicated outcomes. So if we had a blank slate, we could look at entities, actors and resources co-creating differently towards achieving that complex outcome. However, often we dont have a blank slate. we have complicated systems (e.g. a firm) which themselves could be an entity towards the complex outcome so we have to understand structures and boundaries within the complex system and some of the structures could be changed and some could not. if you say complicated outcomes could co-create complex outcomes then you are assuming the subsystem boundaries cannot be changed if you get my meaning.

    Movie would most likely lean towards complicated rather than complex because directors and producers have firm control - a movie experience is complex. to know the difference, ask if there is a mission control in that outcome. that is usually the quickest way to test the difference between complicated and complex.

    hope this help!

    1. Not sure that I totally agree on the categorisation of movie work. I think that the generation of the creative material is often 'complex work' while indeed the final editing seems to be most often 'complicated' work.

      Dr. Diane Nijs, Professor Imagineering, NHTV Breda University (NL)

  3. Nice post. Derek Hitchins
    distinguishes between systematic engineering (complicated) and systemic engineering (complex). His definition of systems engineering is the management of emergent properties. Easily understood in the UK, almost impossible in the US.
    (Just a check; you are familiar with the Cynefin framework, I trust).

  4. ah, a fellow systemicist! yes, i am familiar with cynefin framework. the problem is that we tend to forget ourselves and our baggage when we look at systems. the cynefin framework describes situations very well as POTENTIAL but we forget the baggage through which we think which is in REALITY or ACTUALITY - ie our intrinsic need for control. the post was really to push the point on 'no mission control' which is of course the point of emergence but doesnt hit home enough because in the day to day, we constantly seek control (Aristotle and is potentiality and actuality comes to mind here) and then build complicated systems as a consequence even when we understand complex systems.

    cynefin framework is typically the 'i see the goldfishes in the bowl' descriptive and potentiality framework but doesn't help in making the individual realise that he is the goldfish in the bowl (action research elaborates a lot on that). my post was hopefully a way to advance that point.

    and i do so agree on the US - I see challenges in countries that have done complicated well - Singapore for example as well - trying to move to complex outcomes.

  5. Nice post! Would you say actor/agent 'perception' has an influence over the complexity or otherwise of a system?

    I was thinking about the movie example. Its complicated to make a film. Its complex to create an experience for audiences - they bring their context to the theatre.

    I just finished my first draft paper on this very subject for your Cambridge Service Alliance conference (22nd September 2011 for those who don't know; it was great last year).

  6. the perception is of course influential in complex systems where the outcome is some emotional value or experience because in such cases, the perceiver is being transformed and that THE complex outcome. And the context they bring in also brings about new and useful contextual resources to co-create those outcomes and if you design a system for such outcomes, you need to know how the system can enable these outcomes to be achieved.

    see you at cambridge for the conference Glenn!!

  7. Irene, in response to your tweet yes this does help with understanding the riots to some extent. I think on a broader level it helps more with understanding the "big government" vs. "big society" dilemma. I've not thought of it in this way before but now that I have, IMHO...

    Governments (or at least the civil service) think that all problems can be fixed through greater central control. This is viewing the nation/society through the "complicated" lens and leads to "big government" (and perhaps ultimately totalitarianism). Mr Cameron claims to believe that "big society" is actually the answer, ie. less central control and more local autonomy. This is the "complex" view of the nation/society.

    I don't know whether you would agree with that, but I feel that viewing society as complex rather than complicated is more honest. Intervening to enable outcomes is the way of humility, compared with the attitude of some that they can determine specified outcomes ("we will cut cancer by 50%!", "we will turn around 120,000 problem families").

  8. Spot on! I have been saying this for sometime and yes, big society CAN be a complex view of society and creating a small government that enables a co-creation and engagement with citizens could be a way forward.

    BUT... and its a big 'but'.... lest everyone sees me as holding up a conservative ideology (not showing my hand here ha ha) is that the devil is in the details. You cannot have big society when your society has not been enabled to co-create that community. When your current structures, physical, material, policies etc. are of one type and you can talk the talk of big society and co-creation but cannot walk the walk, it becomes shallow and empty talk.

    and talking about autonomy is useless when your existing structures disable rather than enable autonomy. autonomy is painful to controlling structures, and could also include the use of regulation/markets for outcomes (i like to say that the right/left ideology is no longer relevant). The critical aspects of co-creating communities is that of resources - some are emotional resources - and resources are integrated to co-create outcomes and these resources are enabled or disabled by both the material (CCTV, technology) and non-material (people, processes). if they dont figure out type of resources, they wont figure out how to co-create complex outcomes.

  9. "ask if there is a mission control in that outcome. that is usually the quickest way to test the difference between complicated and complex."

    That reminds me of the phrase: "To gain control, you must first give up control"
    At some point all the calculations are useless to an entrepreneur, one must give up control (no longer touching the ground) and start swimming.

  10. "It took me ages in a national library project to get them understand that their true outcome is their contribution and alignment towards achieving the nation's literacy (which they don't control). they preferred to talk about their outcomes as book browsing, lending etc (which they do control)."
    So common when working with public institutions... they don't want to measure what they don't control. They prefer to measure freaquency of work, frequency of actions and not outcomes.
    Reminds me Gronroos when he writes about internal and external efficiency.

  11. Often when the title of a post includes "versus" one tends to frame the discussion as exclusive "OR" situation. I have found that the very interesting problems are "AND" situations. Some components are complex. The links between some items are deterministic. Some opponents are complex. Some outcomes emerge.

    During a given session, the problem solver may switch modes. The tyranny of OR should not bias the approach. Sometimes the non-oversimplified approach is BOTH.

    Some problem solvers on the team tend to favor a deterministic approach. Others don't. It is valuable to have some wise problem analysts on the team that can distinguish the appropriate component approach to produce the synergy of a composite, delightful solution.

  12. Irene,

    I wonder whether your fourth example of a complex outcome is really appropriate. Surely bringing up a child is more of a complicated system?

    You can have 3 children, bring them all up in the same environment, provide them with the same opportunities, encouragement, nourishment and care, but ultimately you have no control over how they will feel about, and interact with, one another. Perhaps it is a cohesive family which is the complex outcome?

    Either that or I've misunderstood :)

  13. That is exactly the point. Complex outcomes are outcomes that are emergent and cannot be determined which is why raising a child is complex. You can never raise a child the 'same way' as another as child 'raising' is collaborative

  14. I thank you Irene for providing the information in very understandable manner.

    I think complex systems are involuntary (nature controlled) whereas complicated systems are voluntary (i.e. human controlled). So, if we wish to have some intended outcomes then we have to choose right parts/processes that can result in to achieving our intention because complex system (communication between parts/processes) is not under our control.

    Is it so.!! :-)

    1. Nirav

      Sorry for the late reply. I think complex systems are those where the interactions are non-linear so even if you wish to control, you can't. you could design them in (and try to make complicated systems) but the interactions between entities would result in emergent properties and unintended consequences, especially when there are humans involved.

      Hope that clarifies!


    2. Yes, Irene. I meant to say that only.

      Thank you.