Complex vs Complicated Coaching

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Recruiting Stories – Mark Weber
May 12, 2016
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Complex vs Complicated Coaching


A Harvard Business Review article inspired the following coaching and team management views .  Disclaimer:  this is for the coach who is trying to be the best in the world.

Coaching athletes and managing teams to peak performance are ‘complex’ organizational issues.  But instead many coaches view them as ‘complicated’.

The difference?

“Complex organizations 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.”

In coaching, to think with complexity, consider how many factors, both in and out of the practice, go into an athlete’s performance.  Can you predict or control all those factors?

“It’s easy to confuse the merely complicated with the genuinely complex.  Managers (and coaches) need to know the difference:  if you manage a complex organization as if it were just a complicated one, you’ll make some serious expensive mistakes.”

In the business context of sport “expensive” needs no translation.  But in the athletic arena it is synonymous with ‘poor performance’.

Simple system


Complicated systems have many moving parts, but they operate in patterned ways.


Complex systems by contrast, are imbued with features that may operate in patterned ways but whose interactions are continually changing.”

golf course

“Organic growth is highly complex – it contains a large number of interactive, interdependent, diverse elements.”

Within a team, any athletes’ current skill level and adaptability has a direct result on short term coaching performance.  Superficially, it appears that the concept of ‘organic growth’ applied to performance validates the social convention that available ‘athletic talent’ is a prerequisite for coaching success.   But managing team performance doesn’t allow for saying, “If your athletes aren’t faster every year, you’ll get fired.”  It’s more complex than that.

“Practically speaking, the main difference between complicated and complex systems is that with the former (complicated), one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the starting conditions.  In a complex system, the same starting conditions can produce different outcomes, depending on the interactions of elements in the system.”

This is the power and curse of being an exceptional coach or manager in a complex system.  In a complex system one can exceed normal results by creating greater expectations.

“It’s possible to understand both simple and complicated systems by identifying and modeling the relationships between the parts; the relationships can be reduced to clear, predictable interactions.  It’s not possible to understand complex systems in this way because all the elements are interacting continuously and unpredictably.”

This is why ‘cookbook’ coaching of an athlete doesn’t work.  In a team setting blanket ‘test sets’ and other micro-managed black-and-white oversight fails. At best, managing a team as a complicated system will yield good results.  Running a complicated system undervalues the actual complexity of what is happening.  So without introducing an exceptional person (athlete), a team will never produce extraordinary results.

This characterization explains why many coaches cling to the notion of ‘talent driven’ performance.   These ‘complicated’ coaches achieve ‘best in class’ performance through association with exceptional athletes.

So how do some coaches win without the most ‘talented’ athletes?  While others never reach the highest levels – despite coaching the most ‘talented’ athletes.  ‘Best-in-world’ team performance requires a new reality to individual responsibility that prioritizes exceptional performance.  Coaches who architect the opportunity for these complex interactions amongst their athletes and staff create the best course of action for consistent world class results.

In moving from the ‘complicated’ to the ‘complex’, what then to pay attention to?

“Minimizing risk is crucial for anyone in charge of a complex system, and traditional approaches aren’t good enough…unintended consequences are often based on an ‘aggregate of individual elements’, not a single occurrence.”

Preparation for and awareness of ‘unintended consequences’ is the difference.  By managing a few established contributors to success a complex system can deliver simplicity.  Some of these:

  1. Attendance.
  2. Quality of technique.
  3. Some form of training parameters/volumes.
  4. Having a positive, excellence driven environment.

Although one or two of the four are not ‘simple’ or ‘complicated’, it is accepted that those four things, if done well, will contribute to success.  And, if one is not done well, it can sink the whole season.  Looking to these as a roadway for successful coaching makes sense.

Consider everything but make sure you focus on what you do best.

“Triangulate: Triangulation means attacking a problem from various angles – using different methodologies, making different assumptions, collecting different data, or looking at the same data in different ways.”

Ask questions, search for solutions, and allow for growth

“Complicated systems are like machines; above all, you need to minimize friction.  Complex systems are organic; you need to make sure your organization contains enough diverse thinkers to deal with the changes and variations which will inevitably occur.”

If you expect or desire a ‘cookbook’ as the key to becoming the best team or coach in the world, you don’t understand.  Treating complexity like a complication undervalues potential and yields average results – at best.

Redundant perhaps, but to be best in world, every coach needs to first become their personal best.  Be responsible for creating, setting, and demanding great expectations that allow for exceptional performance in an athlete’s short and long term careers.

Taking the easy way and treating coaching like a ‘complicated’ system – making a lot of rules –  doesn’t yield world class anything.  The only way to be the best of the best is to treat coaching and team management as a complex system.

Your individual performance, thought, and personal accountability are required.

Sean Hutchison
Sean Hutchison

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