“That’s complicated. “No, it’s complex!

Why the difference is important for successful innovation

2019, Esther van der Storm


Say, next week there will be two important meetings at work. Your agenda is full and you will receive an invitation to both meetings. One invitation is a standard Outlook meeting request – subject, date, location, and time. The other is a paper invitation: the message is in a nice envelope and the person organizing the meeting will personally hand out the invitation. Which meeting are you going to?


Exactly, probably to the second one. That is because the way you receive the invitation is completely different than you are used to. This makes it more likely that you will react differently than you normally do: by making time for it in your agenda, instead of letting it pass by.


Spice things up

The above example comes from my own daily practice. I recently wanted to organise a kick-off meeting for a change process that I was facilitating, to which I wanted to invite 25 employees at short notice. Looking at the organizational patterns, I knew that invitations are always sent via Outlook and that attendance can be low. That’s why I decided to tinker with the pattern. When I handed out the paper invitations, it almost felt like I was inviting people to a party! The fact that this was also experienced by the guests became clear from the turnout: more than 20 colleagues attended that session. Breaking through the standard pattern already appeared to ensure a better result.



Almost all organisations have developed patterns that have been working in the same way for years. We have all become so accustomed to this that with every new situation we start from our old habits and forget to look at what that specific situation actually requires. We lose sight of the context. The Cynefin Framework is a great tool to make clear what differences exist in the context in which you operate. A few months ago I became acquainted with this model in a training of Bring on the Zoo (BOTZ) with trainer Chris Corrigan.


According to this model five different methods can be defined in which organisations tackle their problems:

1.    OBVIOUS: Your glasses are dirty, you look for a cloth and clean your glasses. Solved! With this method, cause and effect in a simple context are clear and predictable for everyone. Best practices work well here, because these are simple problems.

2.    COMPLICATED: In the middle of the highway your car suddenly falls silent. You don’t know anything about cars yourself, but you can call the Road Guard to solve the problem for you. After investigation, this expert can show you what caused the car breakdown. This context is slightly more complicated and there is a cause-effect relationship. Analysis is a must here, because it takes a lot of work to find out what the problem is. Experts have a crucial role in this field; they can determine what the best solution is in a certain situation.

3.    COMPLEX: This is the example with the paper invitation. You try something out, you see what the result is and then you react. In a complex context, an explanation of cause and effect can only be given afterwards. That is why an extensive analysis beforehand makes little sense; experimenting and testing is key here.

4.    CHAOTIC: Think of an attack or a natural disaster. In those situations action is needed to get the situation under control. After all, chaos is characterized by crisis. In crisis situations there is only room for evaluation and reflection afterwards.

5.    DISORDERED: This last context is the most unclear. The best thing you can do then is to break up the situation and see which parts fit within one of the other four categories.


Which method does your organisation use? Let me guess: the second. Employees analyse everything, develop a project approach from A to Z, talk about it for months, implement it on a set date and then… it turns out not to work. How is that possible?


This is because the context of the organisation is not complicated, but rather complex. The organisation acts in a system whose behaviour cannot be predicted in advance. The approach of formulating comprehensive solutions does not work. That is why it is best to experiment and test within this context.


How can this be done? I’ll give you a few tips:


1.   Map out all the patterns

In an organization, or around an issue, there are all kinds of patterns that just exist. They can help you, but they can also get in the way. Sit down and make a list of patterns you see or know. Of course you can also do that together in a group. Be as extensive as possible and don’t forget to map your own patterns.


2.   Make mistakes

Ask yourself the question: which patterns can be tweaked? What can you change and experiment? Think of a number of possible approaches and test them. Does it work? Then do it more often. Doesn’t it work? Then you quit and try something else. Keep it practical so you can quickly see what the effect is. Don’t be afraid to fail! Precisely by making mistakes you will learn what (doesn’t) work. If you tell your colleagues that you are experimenting, making mistakes is suddenly much more allowed.


3.   Choose a suitable method

If you know which patterns you are going to tinker with, you can also determine which method suits you best. Is that Creative Problem Solving, or Scrum? Or maybe Design Thinking or LEGO SERIOUS PLAY? Or does Deep Democracy or Theory U suit you better? The choice is huge and only when you know what you want to try is it possible to link a methodology to it.




Experimenting, testing and continuing is the approach to quickly achieve successful changes. Do you sometimes get stuck within your organisation? And do you feel that you are not doing the right things? From STORMPUNT we facilitate innovation projects and provide training on how to do things differently. Curious? Contact us for more information