Do you know the difference between “complex” and “complicated”? Time for some serious small talk. It’s mind-opening.

My former colleague Jacques is now an IT professor. On their open-doors-day they let kids try out Lego Mindstorms and for example give small instructions to a small robot to make it roll along lines on the table. My daughter loved it!

On the web you’ll find many amazing examples what can be done with Lego Mindstorms, like solving a Rubik’s Cube in less than 5 seconds.

(c) Olekcii Mach/
(c) Olekcii Mach/

At Fribot (, an annual competition for programmers and enthusiasts, they tackle some wilder challenges.

Also, Jacques and his colleagues display a beautiful Design Thinking mindset.

Look up how they approach the challenge of sorting candy that is packed in different colors. A beautiful example of a fast, iterative, pragmatic approach.

“Complicated” or “Complex”

For most of my life I had used the adjectives “complex” and “complicated” just as I pleased, not really thinking there was a real difference. My training in Systemic Organization Consulting, a couple of year’s back, was eye-opening in this regard – and a great way to give away who you are, I think.

A “complicated” problem is difficult. With enough energy, intelligence and resources (i.e. time) solve-able with a clear, straight-forward approach. Even though, I never managed to solve a Rubik’s Cube, I think it is a “complicated” problem.

A “complex” problem is inscrutable. You can be as intelligent as you wish, have as much time as you want, but you won’t be able to fully understand it and make a plan that works (before you start solving it).

Simply put, for complicated problems, we just need to work hard enough. For complex problems we need other problem-solving-approaches; approaches to solve wicked problems. Design Thinking is one of them – with the necessary mindset.

Risk Factor “Engineer, PhD, born before 1980”

My training as an engineer was predominantly focussed on understanding and classifying problems (read: challenges, if you want) and then learning the proper technique and approach to solve it.

(c) Denis Ismagilov/
(c) Denis Ismagilov/

During one of our coffee breaks we came to discuss our own studying experiences.

Somewhere in the last decades we have reached the point that as an individual, as smart and resourceful that you may be, you won’t be able to get to the bottom of your discipline anymore. The available knowledge has simply exploded, the re-combination of its pieces have become innumerable.

We guessed, that if you were born before maybe 1980, you may have been able to experience – for example if you went for a PhD – that in your very specific field of expertise you could have said “I’ve read it all. I’ve reached the bottom of the bucket.” And, you could then stake out your new field of research. It was still feasible with approaching it as “complicated” problem. Probably no longer.

Here’s is a blunt statement, I know, based on some “intense” reflections during that coffee break.

If you are a) an Engineer, b) with a PhD and c) born before 1980 – you might constitute a massive risk factor to your organization’s innovation capacity and to its survival capacity in general in the VUCA* world.

I am a firm believer that it’s a question of accepting that the world around you is complex, inscrutable. That’s my choice. And, that requires a different mind-set. It doesn’t have much to do with age, education, etc.  Probably a fair bit with your experience in life.

Yes, the trainers then did drive me nuts with their repeated remark “… but it could also be something different.” when we were discussing our observations and judgements on a given situation. But over time they got a bit less pushy.

In fact it has helped me tremendously to push back in situations where I found it inappropriate to make a plan to solve a challenge that could not be fully understood at the start.

*VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; see my first post on “Backlog Management. The Mindset.” for a bit more on this.


So, maybe the next time you’re setting up a project, defining the project’s goal and the way forward, you may want to ask yourself: “What kind of problem are we trying to solve? A complicated one or a complex one?” And then select your approach accordingly.

Also, think about how you generally look at life. Are you seeking to categorize the challenges around you into the “complicated” category or into the “complex” one? Are you open and relaxed to accept that the situation will probably evolve while you move forward? Are you still ok to move forward?

I’ve experienced many decision makers embarking on this journey. And it’s a rewarding one. Mostly more successful, as well.

It’s a great way also to partly re-invent yourself and by doing so create additional creative space. This has resulted into projects that delivered beyond expectations, as they didn’t have to stick to the original plan. They were able to adapt their approach as they moved forward step-by-step, with discipline, reflecting and learning along the way.

That’s my mission.

To finish on a  lighter note, let’s google some stuff!

Let me know, what you think about my categorization into “complicated” and “complex”. Please, add yours in the comment field below!


How to tie shoes

How to knit socks

How to fill out a tax form

How to play guitar

How to solve a linear equation

How to train your dog to catch a frisbee (great music, too!)


How to raise a child (I found more than one answer… Here’s an example.)

How to find the love of your life (Haha!! 22 Questions.)

How to deal with the weather during open air season (No straight answers. But Amsterdam invites to visit. :-))

How to write a touching song (There’s a way… Part VIII of “Build-A-Song”)

How to develop a successful team (Again, no research on my part into this. Here’s just an example to have fun with.)

Have fun!