The Difference Between Complicated and Complex

I hear the word complex a lot. It helps us describe things like the paradoxical global village. It explains the rapid pace of change. It justifies lifestyles filled with too little time. However, when we use the word complex, we usually consider it a synonym of another word – complicated. A recent article helped me understand that there is an important difference between them (Steve Moore).

Complicated – Something with many interconnecting parts. Intricate. Example – Imagine a rigorous math problem on a white board. This is complicated.

Complex – A system of interconnected parts that constantly change. Fluid. Example – If an ocean beach lifeguard leaves their tower for 30 minutes, they may come back to a very different scenario.

I believe that a shift towards complexity is an important trend of our era. It is our new normal. Personally and organizationally, we are encountering more complexity. Most of my conversations with clients and business leaders reveal complex problems like:

  • Working with an intergenerational workforce,
  • Developing strategy which will be effective in five years,
  • Improving organizational culture, and
  • Increasing organizational alignment.

As a result, I believe that we must place an increased emphasis on addressing organizational complexity. We must also equip ourselves with the right tools to solve complex challenges.

An old adage states that to a three year old with a brand new hammer, everything appears as a nail. The principle behind this maxim is different challenges require different solutions. If we try to solve complicated issues by using complex solutions it is like using a hammer to insert a screw. If we try to solve complex problems with complicated solutions it is like smoothing drying cement with a screwdriver.

Here are some simple ways to differentiate the challenges you encounter:

Complicated and Complex Graphic 1

If these differences are true, then we must do two things. First, we must correctly identify the problem we are encountering – is it complicated or complex? Next, we need to assign the problem to an individual or team which is equipped with the correct skillset to solve the problem.

Complicated and Complex Graphic 2

Complicated problem solvers are people like Albert Einstein or Henry Ford. Complex problem solvers are people like Desmond Tutu or Elon Musk. We must avoid the temptation to prioritize the importance of these roles. They are of equal value. They simply exemplify the need to use different skills for different challenges.

We live in a complicated world. We also live in a complex world. I believe that, in general, our educational model trains most effectively for complicated problems. Furthermore, an increasingly interconnected world will require us to develop our complexity muscles.

Head Shot

Jeff Suderman is a complex futurist, consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

Sources: Steve Moore (2012). Seize the Vuja de.  Missio Nexus.



Which Energy Company is Masquerading as an Automaker?

“Tesla isn’t a car company; it’s a battery company” (Montenegro).

Last summer I blogged about Tesla’s ground-breaking decision to make all their Tesla automobile patents public domain (see Open Source Life). Tesla stated that open source patents were a means to accelerate the electric car movement and limit harmful emissions. While this may be true, many believed this was part of a bigger plan to accelerate the public need for portable/modular batteries.

At that time Tesla was shopping for a State in which to build their battery factory. That deal is now sealed and Tesla has begun construction of a $5 billion facility in Nevada. This factory will be used to develop modular batteries which can store large amounts of energy for personal or business use. Last week Tesla announced the launch of their Powerwall scalable battery. With this announcement, Tesla is showing us that their core business is portable energy, not automobiles.

As we review this fascinating case study, here are three lessons we can learn from.

  1. Form vs. function. An organizational adage reminds us to not confuse form with function. Form, how a company runs and operates, should always serve its function, why the company exists. At their heart, Tesla wants to enhance environmental sustainability. It began with electric automobiles and has now extended to our homes and businesses. Tesla’s move from automobiles to batteries is a great example of how function should drive form.
  2. Claiming our preferred future. A foundational premise of my work in strategic foresight is that we each have the ability to shape our future. However, this is not a passive process. We must both identify the future change we desire and then take the risk to change.  Musk teaches us a lot about what the vision of innovators and disruptors can do when we are willing to change our model (in this case, a reliance on fossil-fuels). He and his leadership cadre may become the ‘Renaissance Men/Women’ of our time due to their vision and risk-taking abilities.
  3. Disruptive technology. This term is bandied about regularly. But in the next decade you will watch a textbook example of how modularized power is going to disrupt the power industry. I believe that many electricity monopolies are taking their last breaths. As Powerwall gains acceptance, neighborhoods will begin assembling microgrids of shared power (think of Uber or AirBnB concepts used for sharing excess power). Citizens will break the monopolistic power of electricity companies when they begin to purchase cheaper power during non-peak hours, store it, and resell it at a higher cost (think of it as the new form of ‘currency’ trading). In time, modular power will highlight the sweeping effects of disruptive technology.

It’s time to start saving for a $3,500 Powerwall! I don’t know how to do it, but it is definitely my preferred future!


Jeff Head Shot 3.jpgJeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Robert Monenegro. Tesla’s worst kept secret has become Power Companie’s Nightmare.




Unlearning: The new leadership skill

In order to thrive in the future we are going to need to learn how to unlearn. Amidst unparalleled change, leaders can no longer rely on ‘what they know’. Instead, effective leaders will be defined by the capacity to unlearn outdated and ineffective ways of doing things. More importantly, they will also have the capacity to help their organizations do the same.

A recent article in The Futurist defined this as unlearning and uplearning. The authors note, “one of the most important skills in a time of immense change is to develop the capacity to unlearn old ideas that are increasingly obsolete and learn how to reason, adapt, and act at a higher level of complexity”. Here is what this looks like:

Unlearning: This skill requires us to be able to identify and unlearn ideas and activities that have worked in the past but do not work in today or will not in the future. For example, teachers are no longer sole content providers/experts as a result of the internet. This week, I have observed my children being taught in classrooms (bricks-and-morter as well as on-line) as well as through gamification, Kahn Academy, Wikipedia and Google Translate. Their learning comes from many content providers and experts! However, the teacher as the expert is a longstanding tradition that drives our educational system. We need to unlearn how we teach in order to improve education.

Uplearning: The ability to be comfortable working with complex problems, not because you know the answers, but because you are equipped with critical thinking skills . These skills – such as synthesis, adaptability, systems-thinking and a multidisciplinary approach- enables individuals to ‘pull’ themselves into the unknown. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, demonstrates uplearning in his proposed ‘Hyperloop’, a solar-powered transportation system designed to move people between LA and San Francisco in about 30 minutes. There is currently no way to accomplish this dream. However, he believes that a group of people committed to uplearning can learn how to do so.

This change will be challenging if we rely on historic models of education. Richard Ogle highlighted this in his book Smart World when he noted, “Western education is based on two fundamental principles…rational thinking and content of knowledge that already exists … and, by definition, traditional learning looks backward. In a world of radical change, imagination, intuition, insight and innovation are required …and, by definition, learning looks forward”. Education itself must transform by applying unlearning and uplearning principles.

Alvin Toffler once said, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. While the terms unlearning and uplearning may not be common, you can expect them to become cornerstones of effective education and leadership in the decades ahead.

What are the common barriers you encounter that inhibit uplearning and unlearning?

Why not have my new blogs delivered to your inbox? Just click the subscribe button above.

Ogle, R. (2007). Smart world: Breakthrough creativity and the new science of ideas. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 113.

Budd, B., de la Tega, M., Grove, B., & Smyre, R. (July-August 2014). Creating a future forward college: What if…Collaborations in transformational learning. The Futurist (Vol. 48, No. 4). Retrieved Octtober 21 from