Issue 14

Complicated or complex

Simona Bonghez
Managing Partner @ Colors in Projects


"It"s complex."

"No, it"s not complex."

"Oh, yes, it is, "cause we have 12 systems to interconnect, all developed on different platforms. Plus, we are using a technology that"s new to us…"

"So, it"s a complicated project, not a complex one."

Misu looked at Gogu completely puzzled. He took a second to consider whether he was making fun of him, but seeing the serious look on his face, he simply said in his remiss way:

"Come on, Gogu… you"re picking on words… complicated, complex, it"s the same…"

Gogu threw up his hands in despair: How can it be the same?! He looked around, searching for help, but Chief was not around. "Oh, dear Lord, what wrong have I done, to be the one who has to clarify everything?! I"ll have to put down in my job description: agony aunt offers explanations to every gawk, on daily basis, during and after working hours, like a fool, for free and getting no appreciation." He heaved o deep sigh and launched himself into explaining:

"It"s not the same, Misu, and it is good to clarify things. That"s why we do project management, so that we know this kind of things, to be able to act accordingly and prevent the emergence of problems. As far as projects are concerned, there are two different terms: complicated and complex. The "complicated" attribute is given to projects where we have a great number of interconnected, interdependent parts or technical components. The connections are sophisticated, we need to pay a lot of attention to determine the implications, we need considerable technical expertise to be able to identify all necessary activities and to correctly plan such a project. Right?"

"Exactly. So, this doesn"t also mean complex?"

"No. I"ve just told you that this means complicated. Sit down and listen!"

Misu sat down immediately and looked at Gogu; he was all ears.

"The "complex" attribute is given by the unpredictable nature and it is determined by human behavior. A complex project has - by definition - parts and components that can interact unpredictably. Do you get it?"

He noticed Misu"s not at all intelligent look, so he immediately added:

"Here are some examples: launching a rocket towards the moon is a complicated project, producing a robot arm which can perform brain surgery, that"s another example of complicated project. Bringing up and educating a child is - however - a complex endeavour. Did you get it now?"

Misu"s eyes were beginning to glitter. But he still doesn"t get it, Gogu thought. How can I explain it for him to understand?

Misu voiced his perplexity:

"Wait a minute. The complicated thing is clear. We don"t send people to the moon, but the 12 systems to connect, plus the technology, the interfaces…, we say this is a complicated project. But it"s the complex I don"t get. How is the child"s education our business? It has neither rhyme nor reason", he stated and leant on his back. An utterly unfortunate move since the chair broke unexpectedly under Misu"s weight and he found himself lying on the floor, his feet up in the air. Gogu"s bursting into laughter was triggered not so much by the hilarious position, but by the grimace of total surprise on Misu"s face. He offered his hand and helped him up in a friendly way.

"See what happens if you argue against me? I gave you the extreme example of education so that you unblock your mind, but as I see, I completely blew your mind… And your chair! Ha, ha… I wanted to stress that, unlike a complicated project, where borders can be clearly delimited, where you can define what is within the aims of the project and what falls outside them, in a complex project, borders can become permeable, it is possible that - along the project - you redefine them several times, according to the implications of the environment in which the project is being developed. Here"s a more practical example: a project of organizational change, where things are not complicated at all, but where people react differently, each one of them according to his expectations and fears. There can be unbelievable obstacles in the achievement of the project, determined only by the company staff"s resistance to change. I saw a very interesting comparison in a work on this subject: the plane was given as an example of a complicated system because of the multitude of its components, mechanical and electronic, and a company facing a possible reorganization was given as an example of complex system. And pay attention to this: they said that people begin to react even to the rumor of a possible reorganization, they begin to talk about it, they form opinion groups, the first points of view start to appear, the system is already changing. Whereas the plane, if the mechanic shows up with his tool kit, with the clear intention of fixing the plane"s gear, it will have no reaction. Nice, isn"t it?"

He immediately noticed that he had let himself carried away by the explanations; around them there were several other colleagues, probably drawn by Misu"s spectacular fall, who were now listening attentively to Gogu"s examples. The fusillade of questions began to hail, as each of them was trying to label the project he/she was working on: was it complicated or complex, or maybe both?

"Give us some more examples, Gogu, "cause it"s not clear for everyone. And then, would you rather have a complicated project or a complex one? What if it"s both complicated and complex…"

"Agony aunt, Gogu grumbled to himself, somehow embarrassed by the fact that he had no other examples to give. The complexity part, was it really complex, or complicated? But there came his rescue: probably drawn by the unusual to-and-fro in the office, the Chief also showed up.

"What"s going on here, fellows? Are they giving something away?"

Gogu wanted to reply, but he refrained; his concern was other now, so he launched the challenge to Chief:

"We are talking about complicated projects versus complex projects. Could you help us by some smart example?"

"Oh, that"s a nice subject", said Chief, enthusiastically. There, roll your eyes - thought Gogu, but he wouldn"t dare interrupt him. Chief shook his head. That"s a sign of intense cogitation -Gogu continued his inner monologue, but he was very curious about the follow-up.

"Ok, I"m gonna tell you a joke. Complicated versus complex, right? A project manager was walking on the beach, after lunch. As he was walking, absorbed in his own thoughts - he was planning in mind the next meeting with the project team - he stumbled against something and, giving it a closer look, he realized it was an old lamp. Well, I"m not the PM in the joke, to find the genie from the lamp, said the project manager to himself, but he still picked the object up. And to his great surprise, after cleaning the sand off the lamp, a genie actually appeared before him, suddenly, in a thud. Well, it was a weird sight, like a human shaped cloud, just as in cartoons. It began to talk: Man, I am the lamp genie, bla-bla-bla, you know the story, tell me your wish. The project manager was used to taking advantage of every opportunity, so he didn"t take long to think and said: You know, Genie, I"ve got a project which requires me to travel permanently between Romania and Kuwait. And the flights are mostly night flights, they are tiring me out, not to mention the security check, waiting in the airports, re-entering in the possession of your luggage… In a word, I would like to have at hand a suspended highway from here all the way to Kuwait. The genie considered it for a while - he was probably visualizing the map - then, he said: What you are asking me is extremely complicated, the distance is enormous, we have to cross over continents, over sees, no one could ever build a suspended highway on such a distance. Isn"t there anything else you would like? Slightly displeased with the quality of the encountered genie, our project manager tried his luck on a second wish: Ok, Genie, how about this one: I wish that for the project I"m working on, the six involved organizations collaborated, established all requirements together, agreed on them and didn"t change them until the end of the project. The Genie thought for a while, then, he asked: Listen, how many roadways is that highway supposed to have?"



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