Complicated versus Complex: Implications for Collaboration

by: Dr. John S. Lyons


The ‘C’ in TCOM standards for ‘Collaboration’ so it is useful to understand why we believe that collaboration is a fundamental aspect of using data to inform helping programs and systems.    In order to describe the thinking behind this choice it is useful to consider the similarities and differences between COMPLICATED and COMPLEX systems.

In systems research two things are common to both complicated and complex systems.    First both have many component parts most of which have different functions in the overall operation of the system.     Lots of moving parts makes things complicated and potentially complex.   For both of these types of systems, the only successful management strategy requires integration.  In other words management of both complicated and complex system requires an effort for the components to work together in concerted action.    A failure to integrate the multiple components ultimately guarantees the failure of either a complicated or a complex system.

Defining a Complicated System

What distinguishes these two types of systems is the degree of predictability of the multiple components.   In a complicated system, each of the components is 100% predictable.  An example of a complicated system would be an airplane.     Any airplane has many different parts.  And, making the airplane fly requires that these different parts are all integrated to work together for successful flight.    However each of the component parts is completely predictable in its behavior.   The aviation engineer knows how the part is expected to perform and as long as the part is performing, then the plane will fly successfully.    This makes an airplane a complicated system.     The great thing about complicated systems is that once mastered, improvements and enhancements are relatively straightforward.  It is this reality that has led to the major advances in avionics over the last several decades resulting in plane which essentially have the capacity to fly themselves.  The notable advance in the functionality of cell phones is another clear example of a successfully managed complicated system.

Defining a Complex System

Helping systems also have many component parts.  However, unlike an airplane or a cell phone in which the behavior of the components is 100% predictable, helping systems components are mostly different people.    No one would ever argue that people of 100% predictable.   This lack of predictability is what defines a complex system as opposed to a complicated system.     Complex systems still require integration to function well but integration in the absence of full predictability is a much more difficult challenge.

How do we Integrate a Complex System?

There are actually only two known strategies for integrating complex systems—hierarchical or collaborative.

Hierarchical solutions for integration are top down decision making.   Examples of this form of integration include and an operating room (the attending surgeon is fully in charge), the military (every one follows orders from increasingly higher authorities) and a totalitarian government (the government establishes and enforces clear rules of behavior).   The only way hierarchical models of can work successfully is if the conditions included:

  1. A clear vision of the right way to do things
  2. A clear and singular line of authority

Neither of these conditions apply to helping systems.     There are usually multiple ways to do the same thing.   And, there is almost never a single line of authority.  In fact, there are often many lines of authority operating at the same time.


The only other management strategy for complex systems is collaboration.   Integration can be achieved by talking through differences and perspectives and developing a shared view of what steps are indicated moving forward.     Collaboration at the individual level is called engagement.  By forming a collaborative relationship between the helper and those to be helped, the process of helping is more effective.   Thus communimetric measures focus on a shared vision approach to encourage collaboration with the people to be helped in the assessment process.  The people serve should be full and transparent partners in creating an understanding of themselves.   Collaboration at the program level is often called ‘teaming’.    When you have multiple professionals working with the same person or family, making sure they are in agreement about the purpose and approach to helping is critical for effective complex care.     This aspect of collaboration is why TCOM emphasizes getting multiple professionals involved in creating the shared assessment.   And, collaboration at the system level is called system integration.    The CANS and ANSA are the only standardized assessment approaches that have been successfully implemented across different sectors.   When multiple systems use identical language in their assessment processes, opportunities for system integration are geometrically enhanced.



One thought on “Complicated versus Complex: Implications for Collaboration

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s