The Important Role of Entropy in a Business
I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in learning more about how our civilization has progressed throughout the ages and how it can relate to your business.
One of the principles Pinker explores is entropy, also known as disorder, a concept that is useful for any business leader. He describes entropy in the statistical sense, whereby it is more probable than not that something will become disorganized and not be in an ordered state.
Take one look at a formerly tidied-up child’s playroom after a day of play, and you’ll see what entropy means. Or as Pinker puts it:
“If you walk away from a sandcastle, it won’t be there tomorrow, because as the wind, waves, seagulls, and small children push the grains of sand around, they’re more likely to arrange them into one of the vast number of configurations that don’t look like a castle than into the tiny few that do.”
Entropy is All Around Us
Entropy is a fact of life, and it is all around us. In a way, we are often fighting it or protecting our work and possessions from it. Moreover, we often talk about it. In other words, Pinker further explains:
The Law of Entropy is widely acknowledged in everyday life in sayings such as ‘Things fall apart,’ ‘Rust never sleeps,’ […] ‘Whatever can go wrong will go wrong,’ and (from the Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn) ‘Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.’
Things tend to become naturally disorganized unless someone/something is putting them back in order. Whether it is the maintenance of our car or cleaning our house, there is always something that needs to be organized again.
Entropy in Business
As in life, entropy is inevitable in business. At Celaque, we have processes for every part of the company, including detailed reminders of the work that needs to be done on different dates. For more on processes, please refer to my blog posts: The Benefits of Implementing Processes in Your Business and How to Improve and Grow Your Business with Effective Processes.
When I first implemented processes, I naïvely thought that they would all stay relevant and updated for a year or two at the least. I didn’t factor in all the changes that consistently occur in an office: promotions, new hires, process modifications, improvements, and errors. Process upkeep has almost become a job in itself.
I used to resent any amount of time spent on sustaining our processes, but I now see that it comes with the territory. Anything that has been built must be maintained. Processes are just one example; recurrent reporting, building maintenance, and organizational culture are others.
I find entropy to be a bigger problem in structures that have been recently created and don’t have redundancies built in. For instance, this year, we are implementing monthly company-wide objectives, whereby we set goals for the entire company, and each person sets individual goals for a trimester. At the end of the trimester, we review our results and set new goals. Because this is not yet part of the company fabric, I can see many ways in which this new initiative could easily fall apart. As a result, we are devoting a lot of energy to building the habit so that entropy won’t eat away at this project before the goals have a chance to produce results.
The key is to treat a business like a complex organization whose individual pieces require maintenance and attention just like any machine. It’s only natural for things to become disorganized. Therefore, we must build the best system possible with the necessary mitigating and institutional care processes the company needs to perform optimally.
In the end, working with entropy is part of our job description as leaders. Pinker describes our challenge:
“From an Olympian vantage point, it defines the fate of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.”
To “fight back the tide of entropy” is our work. Fortunately, we have all the necessary tools, and it’s just a matter of identifying the enemy and keeping it away from our company any time we discover it. Then we can create those “refuges of beneficial order” they can become a competitive advantage.