Lately, I’ve been reading Murray Gell-Mann’s “The Quark and The Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and Complex“. He mentioned the old joke of physicists: “The first law of thermodynamics says you can’t win and the second law says you can’t even get even”. In practice the first law says that in an isolated system the total energy stays the same over time and the second law is that of entropy. Entropy means that isolated systems develop towards equilibrium. For example the differences in temperature in an isolated system will spread even and find equilibrium.
Entropy can be found also in many practical examples like trying to keep your desk (or mailbox) in order. Over time there is a tendency towards disorder, where all your pens, papers and other stuff will spread everywhere on your desk. The reason for that is that there are lots more possibilities for the things to be in some sort of disordered state than in an ordered state. When the desk is in order the pens are at one agreed place, the papers and books are piled up on some corner of the desk etc. But in disordered state the papers can be everywhere except piled up on some agreed place, pens can be everywhere except in some agreed place etc. The probability for disorder is lot bigger than for order.
Entropy in Organizations
I was thinking about organizations and entropy. What does this principle mean for organizations? First of all, like I have written earlier, I don’t think of organizations as systems. Instead I think of them as complex patterns that emerge from lots of people interacting locally. Those patterns have predictable unpredictability; dynamic stability. This means that people can perceive these patterns and adjust their interactions accordingly, which can create an illusion of some blueprint or systemic laws governing it all. However, in practice these patterns are dynamic and change over time – sometimes very quickly (like the recent lay-offs of Microsoft) and sometimes more subtly and slowly.
However, the principle of interdiscoursivity means that there are always many levels of emergent phenomena that we can perceive in the area of organizations. While the systems thinking is too narrow and static way of thinking about organizations, it doesn’t mean that there are no phenomena where systems thinking would be usable. I think that you can actually find lots of “systems” from the area of organizational phenomena. Working processes are one them.
Processes don’t use people, people use processes.
If you think about working processes, you should not make the mistake of thinking that these processes can actually govern people’s behavior. Processes don’t use people, people use processes. This also means that the working processes are subject to change in the actual behavior of people. I think this is the area where the concept of entropy becomes usable. No matter how specific, measurable, actionable, rational, time-bound, etc your processes are, people will always start to adapt their behavior according to many conflicting goals and measures that they have in their real-life situations. This means that even if you have selected e.g. Scrum as your working process and educated all of your staff to understand the principles and practices of that process, their practices will start to change. Remember the principle of entropy – there are only few possibilities for the “system” to be in a state of order, but almost infinite possibilities for being in disorder. You can’t win, and you can’t even get even.
In practice this means that organizational development is never ending task. You will always have inherent entropy in your processes (both in practice and also in theory, as you will always find yourself in a new situation that requires something different). You shouldn’t think that we just select this or that process, educate the staff and then just work accordingly ad infinitum. Organizational development is a continuous investment that you can’t afford not to make. In smaller organizations it might be something you do as aside, but in bigger organizations you probably need some people that are paying attention specifically for that area.
And remember, entropy is just a concept for isolated systems. If you have those in your organizations, even they need continuous maintenance. But socially complex phenomena like human organizations have also lots of other properties that need to be addressed – e.g. power struggles, motivational issues, personal goals, conflicting interests… For me, organizational development can never be just about processes and working practices, but it requires also more therapeutic approach like counseling supervision.