Boat and building infrastructure, highlighting complex process.

Which Part of the Process Matters?

Complex or Complicated: Which Part of the Process Matters?

In the military, we learned to trace systems to understand the elements of a more complex system. When a new sailor stands in a ship’s engine room, they find themselves surrounded by seemingly endless pipes, valves, gauges, and control panels. Fuel, water, oil, and air move from place to place within a system to arrive at a proper location at the appropriate temperature and pressure to serve a specific function. When learning the various sub-systems, sailors use a schematic diagram to help them walk the individual systems hand-over-hand. In a relatively short amount of time, the sailor can then redraw the sub-systems from memory. They follow the proverbial molecule of fuel from a tank through the pipes, valves, and engines and out the exhaust. What appeared to be highly complicated turned out to be merely complex.

My colleague, Amy Segami, recently led a masters’ discussion of the differences between complex and complicated. Like an engine room, something complex is just something with many parts that we can break down. It is a compilation of systems, elements, and sub-systems that work together to perform functions. On the other hand, complicated things are difficult. Think of things limited by laws of physics, for example.

We often misidentify something complicated that is more correctly complex. Click To Tweet

Part of the excitement of my work is helping clients who routinely work in both domains, complexity, and complication. I let the client focus on what they do best when it involves complicated things.

But the environment where we come together – the pursuit of federal funding – that’s complex. It is a learnable environment that has more specific elements. We know that the budget moves through a cycle: budget development (programs and priorities), funding approval (legislation), and execution (acquisition and contracting). When we try to understand federal funding by simply reading the daily headlines, it looks like a blur – the engine room that doesn’t yet make sense.

Considering that the budget cycle above translates to learnable phases with specific characteristics and opportunities, the overall process becomes much easier to navigate. Don’t complicate the merely complex.

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