In a complicated world - you can and should control events. In a complex world you cannot control events - there are too many interacting variables. So what can you do?
You can set out to influence the environment.
As a parent, it is how your home and family work as a culture that sets the path for your child. It is the same for an organization today.
"The wiring on an aircraft is complicated. To ﬁgure out where everything goes would take a long time. But if you studied it for long enough, you could know with (near) certainty what each electrical circuit does and how to control it. The system is ultimately knowable. If understanding it is important, the effort to study it and make a detailed diagram of it would be worthwhile.
So complicated = not simple, but ultimately knowable.
Now, put a crew and passengers in that aircraft and try to ﬁgure out what will happen on the ﬂight. Suddenly we go from complicated to complex. You could study the lives of all these people for years, but you could never know all there is to know about how they will interact. You could make some guesses, but you can never know for sure. And the effort to study all the elements in more and more detail will never give you that certainty.
So complex = not simple and never fully knowable. Just too many variables interact.
Managing humans will never be complicated. It will always be complex. So no book or diagram or expert is ever going to reveal the truth about managing people.
But don’t panic. We can manage people if..."
(Yes, that's a tease to get you to read the rest!)
Henceforth here at Spooky Action, we will use these definitions for the terms complex and complicated. They define a profound and very useful difference between types of problems and systems.
The difference is important because you can't control complex systems. It's a mathematical impossibility. The Conant-Ashby Theorem: "Every good regulator of a system must have a model of that system." leads to the Law of Requisite Variety: "That the available control variety must be equal to or greater than the disturbance variety for control to be possible", which is to say, that the control mechanism of a thing must be more complex than the thing being controlled. To continue with Johnnie's airplane metaphor, the autopilot system has to have greater control variety than the plane itself.
The analogy to business is that managers often want to see new initiatives as complicated when they are in fact complex, and thus design complicated systems to manage the change. Which usually fail miserably in very short order when they encounter a circumstance outside of the control model.
The problem with designing control mechanisms for organizational change management is that the system being controlled consists of the entire contents of the minds of the effected group! That is the epitome of a complex system.
Of course, as Johnnie notes, if we abandon the idea of controlling complex systems and focus on intelligently influencing them, we'll have greater success.