Complex vs. Complicated


My fascination with Cynefin framework for decision making continues. It seems this framework provides a good explanation to several interesting phenomena that I have been observing one of them being why so many software companies that excel at developing software suck at developing products. At first blush it would seem that developing software is a complex endeavor but according to the Cynefin framework it is not. Cause-and-effect relationships in software development are not immediately apparent to everyone, but it is possible to discover them given top-notch experts applying their talent and leveraging their knowledge and expertize. Since solutions are only visible to experts, while laymen remind blind to them, experts quickly attain unhealthy feeling of superiority and start relying too heavily on their intellectual power.

Development of new products is inherently complex and we can understand why things happen only in retrospect. Overconfident software developers with a feeling of superiority tend to try to force solutions instead of patiently waiting for answers to emerge by themselves. But it is their leaders not software developers themselves who are to blame for failure of software companies to develop new products. The primary concern with leaders normally operating in complicated context moving to complex context is according to authors of the Cynefin framework

the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles – to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes. Leaders who don’t recognize that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management may become impatient when they don’t seem to be achieving the results they were aiming for. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to over-control the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.