4 Strategies for Navigating an Increasingly Complex World

Andrew Hening
7 min readOct 14, 2020

We are surrounded by systems. From schools to traffic to government agencies, systems are interconnected sets of people/things/ideas that are organized in a way that achieves something.

Some systems, such as a bathtub, are quite simple. Others, like the global financial system, are extremely complex. The distinction between simple, complicated, and complex is actually quite important.

Simple Systems

I love funfetti cake, and funfetti is a great example of a simple system. It is comprised of a small number of elements (e.g. flour, eggs, oil, waiter, sprinkles). It requires a small number of interactions (e.g. mix dry ingredients, mix wet ingredients, combine, bake). And it has a straightforward goal — be a tasty baked good.

Complicated Systems

Complicated systems are simple systems on steroids. For example, imagine trying to build a Boeing 747 jumbojet. Compared to the handful of ingredients and instructions needed for funfetti, a 747 has over six million different components requiring tens of thousands of different steps to assemble. However, like the cake, if you have all the parts and follow all the steps, you’ll achieve your goal — an aircraft that’s able to fly.

Complex Systems

Complex systems are categorically different.With complexity, different parts of a system dynamically interact with each other, and this interaction gives rise to spontaneity, nonlinearity, and emergence. According to the Harvard Business Review:

Complex [systems] are far more difficult to manage than merely complicated ones. It’s harder to predict what will happen, because complex systems interact in unexpected ways. It’s harder to make sense of things, because the degree of complexity may lie beyond our cognitive limits. And it’s harder to place bets, because the past behavior of a complex system may not predict its future behavior. In a complex system the outlier is often more significant than the average.

Andrew Hening

UC Berkeley MBA and Harvard-recognized culture change leader sharing tools, strategies, and frameworks for untangling complex and messy challenges.