Complicated or Complex – does it matter?

Basketball courts from above

Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, stopping smoking, becoming physically active, are all complex problems. Complex problems are ones where we do not know the required actions, there are no rules, processes or procedures to follow. We do not know what we need to guarantee and create the solution. With complex problems, we never quite know what will happen. It can feel unnerving, and there is no quick fix or single solution.  

Complicated problems are where there are processes, rules, set instructions to follow – like bin collections. Hard to do, things go awry, lots of considerations and potential changes, but we largely know that if we do X, it will result in Y, and the bins will be collected.  

Complicated problems can be tackled through what is called linear approaches i.e X action + Y action = Z outcome.  

Where we often fall down, is by treating complex problems like complicated problems. Also, we might, understandably, default to identifying solutions because we naturally want to find ideas and things to fix it. But, solutions to complicated problems do not work for complex problems, and arguably can make complex problems worse.  

For example, if we approached healthy weight (which is complex) like a complicated problem, we might put on more weight management programmes and widen the referral criteria, promote the programme for more referrals, communication campaign about healthy choices, deliver blood pressure checks etc. This is all positive, but healthy weight is much more complex than delivering more activities or services. It can be argued that as a nation, we (government, local authorities, campaigners, physical activity sector, NHS etc) have been trying to manage healthy weight (underweight and overweight) for decades, yet data shows we have ongoing, serious and / or worsening healthy weight problems in many adult and child communities. So, we need to do something different. What we are doing – treating a complex problem, like a complicated problem – is not working.  

Working in complexity, as so many people, services and organisations do, is challenging and nerve wracking, particularly in such unknown financial times (for local authorities and our communities). When in complexity, we have to continually learn and change as we go; network and convene people, services, organisations and partners who can start to work on the complex problem together – co-own it and co-produce solutions; integrate, listen and respond to lived experience of people within the complexity; build bridges with people and services; offer and contribute to support the problem; hold our nerve and be patient; and give it time so we can lean into the complexity and work together to identify solutions.  

Are you working with complicated and / or complex problems? How do you manage working with the unknowns of complexity? 

At Miova, we really enjoy working with people, services, organisations and places, to support their work to understand, navigate, collaborate, and respond to complex problems. If we can help, be a supportive ear, or help facilitate discussions etc., please do get in touch. We would be delighted to hear from you.  

Cate Atwater

Director, Miova