It’s not often that one is lucky enough to be punched-in-the-face with a new way of seeing something that they thought they already knew. I was recently the beneficiary of such a moment when first meeting a thought leader from one of my clients. I have been lucky enough to work with this client in multiple areas of their organization over the years, so our dinner conversation drifted into an overall change management discussion rather than the granular details of simple activities and their results. My dinner guest was a Physicist by education and had authored an illustrious career with his company. Over the years his breakthrough technologies and patents have delivered a huge financial impact to the bottom-line. When he talks, people listen.
He shared with me that one of the things that, over the years, helped shape his vision of organizations is the constant validation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that he has seen. You read that right, Physics at work in the business world. And he wasn’t talking about in the laboratory; he was talking about the systems and processes that made the company go, he was talking about the interactions between people and departments. To say that this old History major was intrigued is an understatement. Do tell.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics
Now I’m sure we all recall from our High School physics class (kidding) that the Second Law of Thermodynamics postulates that, over time, a system’s differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential will equilibrate. From a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, the law explains the phenomenon of irreversibility in nature and the principle of the increase of entropy - the process of degradation, or a trend to disorder. Say what!? In other words, things fall apart if left to their own natural devices. Work is required to produce order out of disorder; so individual or organizational effort must be used to produce something of increased order.
I was stunned by both the obviousness and insight of my dinner guest’s commentary. This law did not just apply to nature, but to the systems and processes in businesses as well. Just because the way things are done may be organized, clear, visible, and understood today – DOES NOT mean that they’ll stay that way. Like weeding a garden, the organizational interactions and even technological systems that we use to execute our business require energy and effort just to keep working.
The 2nd Law and the Case of the Laundry Pile
My 12-year-old son’s bedroom is a perfect example. His room becomes more disordered over time and his clothes, instead of being concentrated in the neat laundry stacks that his mother delivered, become more evenly distributed throughout his room. As long as he lives in his cave, but makes no effort to clean it up, his bedroom won’t stay organized by itself. It requires energy to even keep it at the status quo. Unfortunately for my family, the energy is too often my wife yelling at him – but that is a different blog entry.
Getting ahead of the 2nd Law
For years in my role, I have coached leaders of companies that if they were not driving change and improvement in their organization then they were falling behind. Their best competitors – the ones they really should fear – were getting better. If they merely stood still, using same ways that they had always done things, even successfully done things, then they were going to be passed. Little did I realize that my call to action wasn’t scary enough!
My Physicist friend educated me that it was much worse than that. As he pointed out to me in example after example, organizational processes and systems have a way of growing in complexity and, in the end, causing organizational drag. Humans are endlessly creative creatures. Even when well-meaning and intelligent humans are involved, they can’t help themselves but to tinker with things. Often these efforts are even seen as Simplification, but Simplification of isolated item is not the answer. Simplifying the overall systems and processes involved is the answer.
Thus it is mandatory to focus on driving improvements and change in your organization. It’s not a nice to have but rather a must have. A non-negotiable. My dinner guest advocated that as much as 30% of an organization’s energy and focus should be on Improving and Simplifying in order to counterbalance the Second Law while truly moving the organization forward. He might just have something there. After all, it’s a law of physics. Tell that to your manager or your boss when they question why you need to innovate your processes and systems. Tell them that they can’t fight nature.