Defining Complex Systems and Complex Tasks

One way to define a complex task is as a problem where the number of distinct possibilities that must be considered, anticipated, or dealt with is substantially larger than can be reasonably named or enumerated. We can casually consider in an explicit way tens of possibilities, a professional can readily deal with hundreds of possibilities, and a major project deals with thousands. The largest projects deal with tens of thousands. For larger numbers of possibilities, we must develop new strategies (Bar-Yam 1997). Simplifying a complex task by ignoring the need for different responses is what leads to errors or failures that affect the success of the entire effort, leaving it as a gamble with progressively higher risks.

The source of complex tasks is complex systems. Complex systems are systems with interdependent parts. Interdependence means that we cannot identify the system behavior by just considering each of the parts and combining them. Instead we must consider how the relationships between the parts affect the behavior of the whole. Thus, a complex task is also one for which many factors must be considered to determine the outcome of an action.

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