anti-entropy, Coaching, complex patterns, complex responsive processes, Complexity, complexity sciences, dialogism, emergent patterns, G.H.Mead, Organizational development, organizations, paradox, Ralph D. Stacey, reflexivity, systems thinking, watercolor painting, Wu Wei
In my last post I wrote about the entropy in closed systems like working processes in organizations. The main point was that even though you would have ideal processes (in vacuum), even those would be subject to entropy and would need continuous maintenance. I also said that you should not confuse people with processes – even if processes would be cybernetic, the people and their cooperative behavior isn’t governed by those processes.
Organizations are complex patterns of people cooperating, competing and interacting. People are reflexive and there are always many levels of emergence happening at the same time. Interdiscoursivity means that different levels of emergence might require different discourses in order to grasp the essence of the phenomenon under focus. Because organizations are complex patterns they can not be fully explained by cybernetics. Complex phenomena can not be seen as closed systems. The context of these phenomena are not governed by the laws of thermodynamics. Whereas entropy in cybernetic systems means that the system develops towards more disorganized state, complex patterns have capability to develop and transform also towards more organized directions. There is possibility for the patterns to transform to novel patterns that can be unpredictable and predictable at the same time.
Anti-entropy as a paradox of development
As I was writing my last post about entropy, I was at the same time doing a watercolor painting of a rose. My intention was not to find any analogues with entropy, but it seemed that I actually did. Let me use that painting as an example of simultaneous entropy and anti-entropy.
In the first phase of the painting I just added water and color quite roughly without paying too much attention on the details. In this phase it is quite easy to see that the painting is quite disorganized in a sense that there are not yet fully agreed places for the colors on the paper. You could say that the entropy increases as the paint is removed from the palette, where each color is stored in own container. In this phase the colors move towards less organized state.
In the organizations you can also see this kind of phenomenon when ever there is e.g. reorganization or big scale change on the working practices. The established roles and responsibilities, cooperational relationships and all that can be changed. For the employee, at first it can feel like there has been well functioning working practices and responsibilities are broken and instead we have a mess that needs to be solved. That is also what we have on the paper. Colors are removed from the well organized palette and placed on the paper to seemingly disorganized places. (Of course in the organization this all happens not only on the organization sheets that are controlled by managers but also as self-organized patterns on the real life relationships.)
In the second phase of the painting I started to make more detailed decisions on where to put more color, what kind of strokes to do and to have a more detailed idea on what kind of picture this will be. I didn’t have any model for the picture, instead it formed kind of self-organized way – each stroke gave idea about what to do next and after I saw how it looked it guided the painting forward. Now, in this phase the entropy seems to actually decrease on the paper. Somebody could still say that the palette was more organized state for the colors, but some people might disagree and say that actually this picture of a rose shows more organized state for the colors to be in. So, what happens here? Is the entropy increasing or decreasing? I think that the answer is that the situation now moves to several levels of emergent patterns. Whereas in the first phase the context seemed to be removal and disorganization of well organized colors from the palette, now the color seems to produce conceivable pattern. The reflexive human being in the situation starts to perceive another, perhaps competing pattern emerging.
In the organization you can also see similar things happening. Some people start to see “light at the end of the tunnel”. What first seemed like irrational, unethical and frustrating change, now seems to capture some kind of shape and meaning that wasn’t there before. It really doesn’t mean that the process had changed, it just means that the capacity to perceive the new emergent patterns modifies the context. This doesn’t mean that people would necessarily like this pattern, it is just another level of emergence that might require different kind of discourse to grasp what it means for oneself. What first seemed like a move from more organized state towards disorganization, can no at the same time create novel organization, a new pattern of relationships.
The third phase of the painting is quite interesting. I kind of liked the picture that was finished at the second phase, but I also wanted to test a trick that my friend told me. He told me to try dip pen on a watercolor painting to create shapes and give it some more edge. So, I made a decision to try that out even though I feared it will ruin the painting or at least make it worse. The result was a little ambiguous for me, I thought it was a good experiment and provided opportunities to learn, but I also thought the phase two was more appealing to me. So what does this mean for the entropy? In a way this was still the old entropy of removing the colors from the well organized palette. At the same time (like we saw on the phase two) this was on another level a decrease in entropy (anti-entropy) where the colors and shapes on the papers got even more organized state. However, now there is yet another viewpoint emerging. Instead of seeing the painting just as visual object, it is now also an object for learning new skills. In that sense the third phase can be seen as decreasing the entropy where the painting skills are now even more organized, whereas the picture could also be seen as subject to entropy, where it starts to lose some inherent orderliness that it still possessed in the second phase. But this is also a matter of opinion – in some ways the picture is now more complete, even though it is at the same time less complete.
This kind of development can be seen in organizations also. Whether or not the transformation of working practices (or reorganization) is “complete” is always a matter of perspective. Complex patterns have a capability to transform and create new emergent patterns that always have some predictability and unpredictability. You can never be sure if the interventions you design will have beneficial outcomes or not. But on the other hand, there are always many, sometimes surprising contexts that you are working with. And even though you don’t feel good about how things appear in some viewpoints, you might be able to perceive new patterns from another point of view or from another level of emergence and work with them.