Category Archives: Narratives
Chaos and the tide of Entropy!
We have discussed chaos. It is rooted in the fundamental idea that small changes in the initial condition in a system can amplify the impact on the final outcome in the system. Let us now look at another sibling in systems literature – namely, the concept of entropy. We will then attempt to bridge these two concepts since they are inherent in all systems.
Entropy arises from the law of thermodynamics. Let us state all three laws:
- First law is known as the Lay of Conservation of Energy which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed: energy can only be transferred from one form to another. Thus, if there is work in terms of energy transformation in a system, there is equivalent loss of energy transformation around the system. This fact balances the first law of thermodynamics.
- Second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of any isolated system always increases. Entropy always increases, and rarely ever decreases. If a locker room is not tidied, entropy dictates that it will become messier and more disorderly over time. In other words, all systems that are stagnant will inviolably run against entropy which would lead to its undoing over time. Over time the state of disorganization increases. While energy cannot be created or destroyed, as per the First Law, it certainly can change from useful energy to less useful energy.
- Third law establishes that the entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero. Thus, the entropy of a pure crystalline substance at absolute zero temperature is zero. However, if there is any imperfection that resides in the crystalline structure, there will be some entropy that will act upon it.
Entropy refers to a measure of disorganization. Thus people in a crowd that is widely spread out across a large stadium has high entropy whereas it would constitute low entropy if people are all huddled in one corner of the stadium. Entropy is the quantitative measure of the process – namely, how much energy has been spent from being localized to being diffused in a system. Entropy is enabled by motion or interaction of elements in a system, but is actualized by the process of interaction. All particles work toward spontaneously dissipating their energy if they are not curtailed from doing so. In other words, there is an inherent will, philosophically speaking, of a system to dissipate energy and that process of dissipation is entropy. However, it makes no effort to figure out how quickly entropy kicks into gear – it is this fact that makes it difficult to predict the overall state of the system.
Chaos, as we have already discussed, makes systems unpredictable because of perturbations in the initial state. Entropy is the dissipation of energy in the system, but there is no standard way of knowing the parameter of how quickly entropy would set in. There are thus two very interesting elements in systems that almost work simultaneously to ensure that predictability of systems become harder.
Another way of looking at entropy is to view this as a tax that the system charges us when it goes to work on our behalf. If we are purposefully calibrating a system to meet a certain purpose, there is inevitably a corresponding usage of energy or dissipation of energy otherwise known as entropy that is working in parallel. A common example that we are familiar with is mass industrialization initiatives. Mass industrialization has impacts on environment, disease, resource depletion, and a general decay of life in some form. If entropy as we understand it is an irreversible phenomenon, then there is virtually nothing that can be done to eliminate it. It is a permanent tax of varying magnitude in the system.
Humans have since early times have tried to formulate a working framework of the world around them. To do that, they have crafted various models and drawn upon different analogies to lend credence to one way of thinking over another. Either way, they have been left best to wrestle with approximations: approximations associated with their understanding of the initial conditions, approximations on model mechanics, approximations on the tax that the system inevitably charges, and the approximate distribution of potential outcomes. Despite valiant efforts to reduce the framework to physical versus behavioral phenomena, their final task of creating or developing a predictable system has not worked. While physical laws of nature describe physical phenomena, the behavioral laws describe non-deterministic phenomena. If linear equations are used as tools to understand the physical laws following the principles of classical Newtonian mechanics, the non-linear observations marred any consistent and comprehensive framework for clear understanding. Entropy reaches out toward an irreversible thermal death: there is an inherent fatalism associated with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. However, if that is presumed to be the case, how is it that human evolution has jumped across multiple chasms and have evolved to what it is today? If indeed entropy is the tax, one could argue that chaos with its bounded but amplified mechanics have allowed the human race to continue.
Let us now deliberate on this observation of Richard Feynmann, a Nobel Laurate in physics – “So we now have to talk about what we mean by disorder and what we mean by order. … Suppose we divide the space into little volume elements. If we have black and white molecules, how many ways could we distribute them among the volume elements so that white is on one side and black is on the other? On the other hand, how many ways could we distribute them with no restriction on which goes where? Clearly, there are many more ways to arrange them in the latter case.
We measure “disorder” by the number of ways that the insides can be arranged, so that from the outside it looks the same. The logarithm of that number of ways is the entropy. The number of ways in the separated case is less, so the entropy is less, or the “disorder” is less.” It is commonly also alluded to as the distinction between microstates and macrostates. Essentially, it says that there could be innumerable microstates although from an outsider looking in – there is only one microstate. The number of microstates hints at the system having more entropy.
In a different way, we ran across this wonderful example: A professor distributes chocolates to students in the class. He has 35 students but he distributes 25 chocolates. He throws those chocolates to the students and some students might have more than others. The students do not know that the professor had only 25 chocolates: they have presumed that there were 35 chocolates. So the end result is that the students are disconcerted because they perceive that the other students have more chocolates than they have distributed but the system as a whole shows that there are only 25 chocolates. Regardless of all of the ways that the 25 chocolates are configured among the students, the microstate is stable.
So what is Feynmann and the chocolate example suggesting for our purpose of understanding the impact of entropy on systems: Our understanding is that the reconfiguration or the potential permutations of elements in the system that reflect the various microstates hint at higher entropy but in reality has no impact on the microstate per se except that the microstate has inherently higher entropy. Does this mean that the macrostate thus has a shorter life-span? Does this mean that the microstate is inherently more unstable? Could this mean an exponential decay factor in that state? The answer to all of the above questions is not always. Entropy is a physical phenomenon but to abstract this out to enable a study of organic systems that represent super complex macrostates and arrive at some predictable pattern of decay is a bridge too far! If we were to strictly follow the precepts of the Second Law and just for a moment forget about Chaos, one could surmise that evolution is not a measure of progress, it is simply a reconfiguration.
Theodosius Dobzhansky, a well known physicist, says: “Seen in retrospect, evolution as a whole doubtless had a general direction, from simple to complex, from dependence on to relative independence of the environment, to greater and greater autonomy of individuals, greater and greater development of sense organs and nervous systems conveying and processing information about the state of the organism’s surroundings, and finally greater and greater consciousness. You can call this direction progress or by some other name.”
Harold Mosowitz says “Life is organization. From prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells, tissues and organs, to plants and animals, families, communities, ecosystems, and living planets, life is organization, at every scale. The evolution of life is the increase of biological organization, if it is anything. Clearly, if life originates and makes evolutionary progress without organizing input somehow supplied, then something has organized itself. Logical entropy in a closed system has decreased. This is the violation that people are getting at, when they say that life violates the second law of thermodynamics. This violation, the decrease of logical entropy in a closed system, must happen continually in the Darwinian account of evolutionary progress.”
Entropy occurs in all systems. That is an indisputable fact. However, if we start defining boundaries, then we are prone to see that these bounded systems decay faster. However, if we open up the system to leave it unbounded, then there are a lot of other forces that come into play that is tantamount to some net progress. While it might be true that energy balances out, what we miss as social scientists or model builders or avid students of systems – we miss out on indices that reflect on leaps in quality and resilience and a horde of other factors that stabilizes the system despite the constant and ominous presence of entropy’s inner workings.
|I think the most difficult thing had been scaling the infrastructure. Trying to support the response we had received from our users and the number of people that were interested in using the software.
– Shawn Fanning
Froude’s number? It is defined as the square of the ship’s velocity divided by its length and multiplied by the acceleration caused by gravity. So why are we introducing ships in this chapter? As I have done before, I am liberally standing on the shoulder of the giant, Geoffrey West, and borrowing from his account on the importance of the Froude’s number and the practical implications. Since ships are subject to turbulence, using a small model that works in a simulated turbulent environment might not work when we manufacture a large ship that is facing the ebbs and troughs of a finicky ocean. The workings and impact of turbulence is very complex, and at scale it becomes even more complex. Froude’s key contribution was to figure out a mathematical pathway of how to efficiently and effectively scale from a small model to a practical object. He did that by using a ratio as the common denominator. Mr. West provides an example that hits home: How fast does a 10-foot-long ship have to move to mimic the motion of a 700-foot-long ship moving at 20 knots. If they are to have the same Froude number (that is, the same value of the square of their velocity divided by their length), then the velocity has to scale as the square root of their lengths. The ratio of the square root of their lengths is the the square of 700 feet of the ship/10 feet of the model ship which turns out to be the square of 70. For the 10-foot model to mimic the motion of a large ship, it must move at the speed of 20 knots/ square of 70 or 2.5 knots. The Froude number is still widely used across many fields today to bridge small scale and large-scale thinking. Although this number applies to physical systems, the notion that adaptive systems can be similarly bridged through appropriate mathematical equations. Unfortunately, because of the increased number of variables impacting adaptive systems and all of these variables working and learning from one another, the task of establishing a Froude number becomes diminishingly small.
The other concept that has gained wide attention is the science of allometry. Allometry essentially states that as size increases, then the form of the object would change. Allometric scaling governs all complex physical and adaptive systems. So the question is whether there are some universal laws or mathematics that can be used to enable us to better understand or predict scale impacts. Let us extend this thinking a bit further. If sizes influence form and form constitute all sub-physical elements, then it would stand to reason that a universal law or a set of equations can provide deep explanatory powers on scale and systems. One needs to bear in mind that even what one might consider a universal law might be true within finite observations and boundaries. In other words, if there are observations that fall outside of those boundaries, one is forced into resetting our belief in the universal law or to frame a new paradigm to cover these exigencies. I mention this because as we seek to understand business and global grand challenges considering the existence of complexity, scale, chaos and seeming disorder – we might also want to embrace multiple laws or formulations working at different hierarchies and different data sets to arrive at satisficing solutions to the problems that we want to wrestle with.
Physics and mathematics allow a qualitatively high degree of predictability. One can craft models across different scales to make a sensible approach on how to design for scale. If you were to design a prototype using a 3D printer and decide to scale that prototype a 100X, there are mathematical scalar components that are factored into the mechanics to allow for some sort of equivalence which would ultimately lead to the final product fulfilling its functional purpose in a complex physical system. But how does one manage scale in light of those complex adaptive systems that emerge due to human interactions, evolution of organization, uncertainty of the future, and dynamic rules that could rapidly impact the direction of a company?
Is scale a single measure? Or is it a continuum? In our activities, we intentionally or unintentionally invoke scale concepts. What is the most efficient scale to measure an outcome, so we can make good policy decisions, how do we apply our learning from one scale to a system that operates on another scale and how do we assess how sets of phenomena operate at different scales, spatially and temporally, and how they impact one another? Now the most interesting question: Is scale polymorphous? Does the word scale have different meanings in different contexts? When we talk about microbiology, we are operating at micro-scales. When we talk at a very macro level, our scales are huge. In business, we regard scale with respect to how efficiently we grow. In one way, it is a measure but for the following discussion, we will interpret scale as non-linear growth expending fewer and fewer resources to support that growth as a ratio.
As we had discussed previously, complex adaptive systems self-organize over time. They arrive at some steady state outcome without active intervention. In fact, the active intervention might lead to unintended consequences that might even spell doom for the system that is being influenced. So as an organization scales, it is important to keep this notion of rapid self-organization in mind which will inform us to make or not make certain decisions from a central or top-down perspective. In other words, part of managing scale successfully is to not manage it at a coarse-grained level.
The second element of successfully managing scale is to understand the constraints that prevent scale. There is an entire chapter dedicated to the theory of constraints which sheds light on why this is a fundamental process management technique that increases the pace of the system. But for our purposes in this section, we will summarize as follows: every system as it grows have constraints. It is important to understand the constraints because these constraints slow the system: the bottlenecks have to be removed. And once one constraint is removed, then one comes across another constraint. The system is a chain of events and it is imperative that all of these events are identified. The weakest links harangue the systems and these weakest links have to be either cleared or resourced to enable the system to scale. It is a continuous process of observation and tweaking the results with the established knowledge that the demons of uncertainty and variability can reset the entire process and one might have to start again. Despite that fact, constraint management is an effective method to negotiate and manage scale.
The third element is devising the appropriate organization architecture. As one projects into the future, management might be inclined toward developing and investing in the architecture early to accommodate the scale. Overinvestment in the architecture might not be efficient. As mentioned, cities and social systems that grow 100% require 85% investment in infrastructure: in other words, systems grow on a sublinear scale from an infrastructure perspective. How does management of scale arrive at the 85%? It is nigh impossible, but it is important to reserve that concept since it informs management to architect the infrastructure cautiously. Large investments upfront could be a waste or could slow the system down: alternative, investments that are postponed a little too late can also impact the system adversely.
The fourth element of managing scale is to focus your lens of opportunity. In macroecology, we can arrive at certain conclusions when we regard the system from a distance versus very closely. We can subsume our understanding into one big bucket called climate change and then we figure out different ways to manage the complexity that causes the climate change by invoking certain policies and incentives at a macro level. However, if we go closer, we might decide to target a very specific contributor to climate change – namely, fossil fuels. The theory follows that to manage the dynamic complexity and scale of climate impact – it would be best to address a major factor which, in this case, would be fossil fuels. The equivalence of this in a natural business setting would be to establish and focus the strategy for scale in a niche vertical or a relatively narrower set of opportunities. Even though we are working in the web of complex adaptive systems, we might devise strategies to directionally manage the business within the framework of complex physical systems where we have an understanding of the slight variations of initial state and the realization that the final outcome might be broad but yet bounded for intentional management.
The final element is the management of initial states. Complex physical systems are governed by variation in initial states. Perturbation of these initial states can lead to a wide divergence of outcomes, albeit bounded within a certain frame of reference. It is difficult perhaps to gauge all the interactions that might occur from a starting point to the outcome, although we agree that a few adjustments like decentralization of decision making, constraint management, optimal organization structure and narrowing the playing field would be helpful.
Disseminating financial knowledge to develop engaged organizations
Financial awareness of key drivers are becoming the paramount leading indicators for organizational success. For most, the finance department is a corner office service that offers ad hoc analysis on strategic and operational initiatives to a company, and provides an ex-post assessment of the financial condition of the company among a select few. There are some key financial metrics that one wants to measure across all companies and all industries without exception, but then there are unique metrics that reflect the key underlying drivers for organizational success. Organizations align their forays into new markets, new strategies and new ventures around a narrative that culminates in a financial metric or a proxy that illustrates opportunities lost or gained.
Having been cast in operational finance roles for a good length of my career, I have often encountered a high level of interest to learn financial concepts in areas such as engineering, product management, operations, sales, etc. I have to admit that I have been humbled by the fairly wide common-sense understanding of basic financial concepts that these folks have. However, in most cases, the understanding is less than skin deep with misunderstandings that are meaningful. The good news is that I have also noticed a promising trend, namely … the questions are more thoroughly weighed by the “non-finance” participants, and there seems to be an elevated understanding of key financial drivers that translate to commercial success. This knowledge continues to accelerate … largely, because of convergence of areas around data science, analytics, assessment of personal ownership stakes, etc. But the passing of such information across these channels to the hungry recipients are not formalized. In other words, I posit that having a formal channel of inculcating financial education across the various functional areas would pay rich dividends for the company in the long run. Finance is a vast enough field that partaking general knowledge in these concepts which are more than merely skin-deep would also enable the finance group to engage in meaningful conversations with other functional experts, thus allowing the narrative around the numbers to be more wholesome. Thus, imparting the financial knowledge would be beneficial to the finance department as well.
To be effective in creating a formal channel of disseminating information of the key areas in finance that matter to the organization, it is important to understand the operational drivers. When I say operational drivers, I am expanding that to encompass drivers that may uniquely affect other functional areas. For example, sales may be concerned with revenue, margins whereas production may be concerned with server capacity, work-in-process and throughput, etc. At the end, the financial metrics are derivatives. They are cross products of single or multiple drivers and these are the elements that need to be fleshed out to effect a spirited conversation. That would then enable the production of a financial barometer that everyone in the organization can rally behind and understand, and more importantly … be able to assess how their individual contribution has and will advance organization goals.
Importance of Heroes and Narratives in Organizations
“My own heroes are the dreamers, those men and women who tried to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in small ways or great ones. Some succeeded, some failed, most had mixed results… but it is the effort that’s heroic, as I see it. Win or lose, I admire those who fight the good fight.” – George Martin
“Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas-abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken-and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.” – Neil Gaiman
Heroes are not born. Circumstance and happenstance create heroes. In some cases, heroes are individuals who walk into a minefield of uncertainty that threatens their natural inclination for self-preservation in the interest of value systems and people that are alien to the individual. Thus, a private in an army is a hero already in the fact that he/she is walking into possible harm’s way and serving a cause to serve and protect people not necessarily related to him/her. One has heard the adage – one man’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Thus, someone whom we call a terrorist may be perceived a hero by someone else. Thus, in this case …it all becomes a matter of a point of view, but the fundamental point remains – a hero is considered a person who abnegates and abjures their rights to self-preservation for some greater perceived good.
Sustaining innovation is a vital yet difficult task. Innovation requires the coordinated efforts of many actors to facilitate (1) the recombination of ideas to generate novelty, (2) real-time problem solving, and (3) linkages between present innovation efforts with past experiences and future aspirations. Innovation narratives are cultural mechanisms that address these coordination requirements by enabling translation. Specifically, innovation narratives are powerful mechanisms for translating ideas across the organization so that they are comprehensible and appear legitimate to others. Narratives also enable people to translate emergent situations that are ambiguous or equivocal so as to promote real-time problem solving. With their accumulation, innovation narratives provide a generative memory for organizations that enable people to translate ideas accumulated from particular instances of past innovation to inform current and future efforts.
The concept of collective identity has gained prominence within organizational theory as researchers have studied how it consequentially shapes organizational behavior. However, much less attention has been paid to the question of how nascent collective identities become legitimated. Although it is conventionally argued that membership expansion leads to collective identity legitimacy, one draws on the notion of cultural entrepreneurship to argue that the relationship is more complex and is culturally mediated by the stories told by group members. Legitimacy is more likely to be achieved when members articulate a clear defining collective identity story that identifies the group’s orienting purpose and core practices. Although membership expansion can undermine legitimation by introducing discrepant actors and practices to a collective identity, this potential downside is mitigated by compelling narratives, which help to coordinate expansion. And that is where the heroes can be interwoven into organizational theory and behavior. It is important to create environments that by happenstance and circumstance create heroes. The architecture of great organizations imputes heroes and narratives in their tapestry.
Heroes and narratives are instrumental in organizations that forge a pathway to long-term sustenance and growth. Hence, we are quick to idolize figures – Iacocca, Welch, Jobs, Ellison, Gates, Benioff, Gerstner, Branson, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Brin and Page, etc. We learn narratives through case studies, news print, scholarly books on successful companies; and we emulate and steal and copy and parody and so much more … not necessarily because we want to be them but we want to create our identity in our own lair in ecosystems that move with or against the strongest currents.
So it is essential to celebrate the heroes and the narratives of great companies as an additional instrument to ignite engagement and foray into uncharted territories and conquer the unknown. Hence, personally I have also found solace in reading biographies of people who have made a difference, and a great pleasure in vicariously living through the ebbs and troughs of great companies