The Difference Between Complicated and Complex

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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.




  1. Jim Beatty

    Well done Jeff. Hope you are well.

    • Jeff Suderman

      It’s good to hear from you Jim! All is very well and I hope the same for you.


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