Our Tendencies to Want Things To Be More Complicated or More Complex

Theory: Some of us want to believe our situations are more complex than complicated. Some of us want to believe our situations are more complicated than complex.
If you're looking for how I define Complicated and Complex, start with Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework. But please don't stop there. I've written some pieces here on trying to answer What is Complexity?...on the difference between answers and advice.....and on LEGOs, policing, and jazz music. While I generally agree with Snowden and his categorizations, my Kool-Aid has a slightly different recipe than his. 

Extending beyond Cynefin, we need to analyze the relative openness of our environments, systems, and "loops."  Non-linear situations tend to be further described as being either Open-Loop or Closed-Loop environments. (Note: I wrote about this, as applied to the routine nature of police traffic stops.) 

While I understand the value of categorization, to think that systems are either open or closed is overly simplistic. Maybe we should see things on a spectrum of tightness or leakiness. How much or what it is that can emerge or breach the walls or barriers of the system? How much control, influence, or impact do we have over the variables? But that's another discussion to probe...

I've invested three (3) paragraphs, a video, and links to a handful of my blog posts as a shallow attempt to attach definitions, articulations, and explanations to distinguish (to some extent) Complicated/Complex, Ordered/Unordered, and Open/Closed Loop. If you're still with me, please allow me to get to the meat of this post on our tendencies...

I've spoken at length with public safety and emergency response folk on the above separations of environment and function. These include police, fire, and medical responders. The vast majority of them come from a belief and mindset that their operating environment is Chaotic and Complex. (I've also identified the evidence-based policing community as an outlier to this experience - as it's my theory that they believe reducing the policing environment to Complicated / Obvious is possible through more research.) 

I do not believe that the majority of the police operating environment is Chaotic. I believe there are significant portions of it that are Complex - in that we balance competing and antagonistic values - such as weighing potential benefits and costs of actions taken in the context of our Fourth Amendment. While we have boundaries outlined in case law, the options available to a police officer in the street will never be able to be appropriately codified into a flowchart or reduced to if-then technical responses. It's impossible!! What I believe we have is a lot of situations of Complication with pockets of Complexity...and Complexity with pockets of Complication. And there are still a lot of things I do as a police officer that are in the Obvious/Closed/Linear domain as well. 

There's a certain sex appeal and excitement to living in chaos, uncertainty, volatility, and dynamic change. Public safety careers even draw in those sorts of adrenaline junkies seeking job excitement and thrills. And our work culture perpetuates this idea that we thrive in the unknown doing the unpredictable while everyone takes the commuter cattle train, to sit at their desk doing paperwork in some boring, repetitive Monday through Friday job. We even openly ridicule the cops who have cushy office assignments! 

When I argue to my cop, firefighter, and emergency medical friends where and how specific tasks, functions, duties, situations, and environments fit into the Ordered domains of Cynefin, they resist. They do not want to believe in predictability, repeatability, trends, or probabilities. They want to live Open-Loop --where everything and anything is possible at the tails of the distribution curve. By identifying things as more predictable, it's as if we minimize the organic double-loop thinking of the first responder. It's hard to argue against this skeptically aware mindset when so much of our work is in the low probability events.

So that's where I see people wanting to believe situations are more complex than complicated. 

But what about the other side of the coin?

From what I see in other communities and industries, they seem to put their blinders on so they only see Complicated/Ordered/Closed-Loop aspects of their jobs. I imagine an accountant, a computer IT specialist, or an engineer. They think that everything can be solved via research, science, analysis, data, checklists, standardized policies, and best practices. They don't want to look at uncontrollable (or unidentifiable!) variables that prevent us from having objective solutions or answers. They want their jobs and lives to be predictable. 

It's as if cops and firemen find glory in jobs being difficult, stressful, and challenging. And others find satisfaction in to making theirs easier, less fearful, or reduced to efficient methods.

Complex does not mean difficult; Complicated does not mean easy. We need to make these distinctions and break any associations with them. We also need to break down the fears of the unknown by giving our people tools and a mindset to lean into complexity. And also use science to assemble a map of clusters, trends, patterns, and connections within complexity to move it closer to being ordered. Folks who are polarized into these predispositions or personalities can learn from those in the other camp. But it takes a lot of conversations, debates, and definitions to get there. And talk our way through the limits of hard boundaries or distinction between domains.

But it's worth it. This, along with everything here, is my theory, opinion, and perspective. 


What do you all think? Is there something to these two (2) predispositions or tendencies?

Can we reflect on what might be our comfortable and uncomfortable domains?

Do we have predispositions to want things to fall inside certain domains subconsciously?

Have our industries conditioned us into a mindset of resistance or desire for a certain domain?

Are we willing to break our environments and functions down into sub-environments and sub-functions? 

Are we open to realign and relabel things into more appropriate domain categories?


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


  1. Strange synchronicity. I just said something similar (possibly less eloquent) yesterday in reaction to the term VUCA to describe the world. As with you, I think there is a tendency of people to look at the world as more complex. I hadn't thought of the opposite side, although I suppose that is what I was suggesting. https://www.jackvinson.com/blog/2018/4/3/is-vuca-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder

    1. Nice blog! Thanks for sharing. Mine was inspired by a tweet thread between cops & firemen: https://twitter.com/LouHayesJr/status/981312309577572352 You'll have to scroll up & down to see where it twists & turns.

  2. No promises that these thoughts are fully-fleshed, but a few fractious ideas come to mind:

    We emergency responders love the story, the legends, and the lore. Chaos and complexity is interesting, and makes for better stories, and if we're thriving in those domains, we're better fitting the archetypes of our own legends.

    Perhaps apocryphal, but I remember reading the the culture of naval aviation rejected the VTOL design of the F-35, despite similar performance and the opportunity for cost saving and additional (vertical) flight capability. Apparently, vertical landing doesn't separate the doers and the talkers like a conventional carrier landing. Not being an aviator, they both look difficult to me.

    We don't revere athletes who win the game in the first half, or the second stringers who hold onto a lead, like we do those who make the gamewinning score just before the buzzer. Tina Fey and Matt Damon had a great bit on 30 Rock where Damon's character, a Airline Transport Pilot, mocked Chesley Sullenberger for being lionized for the Miracle on the Hudson, saying "You know what a great pilot would've done? Not hit the birds!!"

    I've had fire officers chastise me for "trying to make an art into a science", or "making this job too easy" (with the addition of job aids). It's trivial to find firefighters who deride "check-box chiefs", or medics who belittle "cook-book paramedics".

    1. I buy all that you've written here. There is an excitement to the uncertainty of what lays ahead behind the closed door. That's why we have so many first responder TV shows. I'm still very much in-the-field making operational/tactical decisions -- & I do appreciate when policy/supvs grant me flexibility to create new interventions...but also have a certain hunger for wanting to do that which is more effective/efficient in reaching that desired future state. The struggle will continue...

  3. You make some great points in this blog post BUT:

    There is no use in talking about whether firefighting is complex, chaotic considering the context of time. While you were right in our previous twitter conversation to say that the firefighting system is bounded, most obviously by the nature of chemistry & physics, less obviously by the availability of firefighting resources & other things like travel time, atmospheric conditions & fuel geometry and the layout of the structure all play a role.

    Of course there are many other variables, some known (known unknowns) and some unknown (unknown unknowns) that have a greater or lesser impact on outcomes. Time matters and the chaos of the fire scene and the chaos of Cynefin are both short lived.

    In order to be chaotic, if only for a few minutes, firefighting should be sensitive to initial conditions, be non-linear, exhibit some emergence and self organization, exhibit predictability given a long enough time series.

    Firefighting is sensitive to initial conditions. Where & how the fire develops is sensitive to the ventilation profile, fuel geometry, and many other factors over which the fire department asserts no control. Furthermore, firefighting is resource intensive, the resources are finite, and those resources compete with other variables. Initial conditions matter.

    Fire situations are non-linear as well. Each fire, is a unique occurrence in space and time and one where relatively small inputs can produce dramatically different outcomes. For example one firefighter trips while hooking up to the hydrant produces a string of events that prevents the establishment of a continuous water supply and soon an entire block is on fire.

    The entirety of fire response plans, tactics, and deployment models are designed to quickly transition from the initial chaotic state to a more stable one as soon as possible. That this often happens over a relatively short period of time is irrelevant. Scale matters too both for the chemistry of the fire and the time frames over which it is brought under control.

    Koehler et. al. lay out a few methods to management emergent chaos that look like firefighting SOPs.

    1. One method for controlling chaos is to alter the parameters of the system. This means limiting the degrees of freedom or the extent of the behavior available to a system.
    We do this by having standard procedures that include containment strategies.

    2. A second method for controlling chaos uses "perturbations" or disturbances during chaotic episodes to change behavior back to more predictable and smoother functioning. The intent with such interventions is to use small change that create nonlinear effects, that create phase shifts from erratic behavior to more fluid behavior.

    This is what the application of water does. This is what the closing of does and systematic searches do.

    3. A third and most recent method for controlling chaos is aimed at altering the "orbit" of a chaotic to system to a more desirable orbit on its attractor.
    This is what the incident commander does when they realize that they are not making progress with the initial action and one "good firefighter" shifts the entire incident in a different direction.

    There is an argument that firefighting approached as a system can be non-linear without being chaotic. I don’t know enough about the pure mathematics to make a more compelling proof. However, is that even if in the final analysis, firefighting systems are not really and purely chaotic-even for short periods-there are interesting parallels between methods proposes to manipulate chaos and the naturally evolved methods of managing emergent events like fires.

    More than anything I need more time to flush this out...

    Koehler, Gus & Kress, Gunther & Miller, Randi. (2001). What Disaster Response Management Can Learn from Chaos Theory. 10.1201/b16715-11.

    1. Thanks for continuing the conversation. I'm having a hard time following, as it's written over my head & using (contextual) terminology I'm not familiar with. It sounds as though this is the Fire side's equivalent of "there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop" on the Police side. I've been a student of patterns, schema, heuristics, and clusters of variables...some bigger, stronger, more networked, and more significant than others. I think the police traffic stop analogy is similar in that there still exist very strong patterns/etc to help our decisions - even though anything can happen. Link to post on routine traffic stop: http://www.theillinoismodel.com/2015/09/the-routine-traffic-stop-why-there-is.html


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