How complex is our work?

On my recent post, Emergent practices need practice, I looked at how complexity could not be easily addressed through traditional training methods:

But many of the problems we face today are COMPLEX, and methods to solve simple and complicated problems will not work with complex ones. One of the ways we addressed simple & complicated problems was through training. Training works well when you have clear and measurable objectives. However, there are no clear objectives with complex problems. Learning as we probe the problem, we gain insight and our practices are emergent (emerging from our interaction with the changing environment and the problem). Training looks backwards, at what worked in the past (good & best practices), and creates a controlled environment to develop knowledge and skills.

That got me thinking about what the ‘average’ knowledge worker might be expected to do in the course of a week. I think that there is still a fair amount of our work that is based on our existing skills and knowledge (perhaps 50%) and enables us to deal with complicated issues. This could be writing complicated reports or doing some type of trouble-shooting or problem-solving based on processes and knowledge that we have developed in our professional field. I also think that we all have to deal with routine, simple stuff, but we should off-load as much as possible so that we could concentrate on higher value tasks. It would be best to keep this to a minimum; say no more than 10%. We can also be confronted with total chaos or crises from time to time. Dealing with these requires a lot of energy. Keeping chaos to a minimum would be another objective of the organization; once again, say 10%.

Finally, as we understand the complex nature of our environment or the markets, we would want our workers to be able to address complex challenges. I doubt that all of our work is complex and I’m not sure how much complexity one can handle for extended periods of time. We are constantly trying to make sense and bring some order to our work and that takes effort. I think that 30% may be an appropriate amount of our time.
complex work
Does anyone have experience or data in looking at how our work is divided from simple to complex problems? It seems like a very interesting area for further research.

5 Responses to “How complex is our work?”

  1. Lori Zittnan

    I don’t have data or specific experience in this area except a memory of writing and reviewing survey questions to assess the efficacy of ISTE technology standards of Grade 3-12 teachers. Defined rubrics were very helpful to define a quantifiable scale and maintain validity and reliability.

    What seems to distinquish complex from complicated is the severity of impact that is realized when the worker begins to isolate the variables to effect a change in performance in themselves or others.

    The research that supports The Performance Consultant’s Fieldbook By Judith A. Hale include some study references that may include related data.

    It is much easier with software than with people for the main reason that people are unpredictable. I like the following blog: Here is one of the entries of complex vs complicated that I thought was pretty insightful.

    Dividing work that is not concrete, like software is messier.

    Good luck!


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