A Matter of Life and Death

from "The Ruins of Detroit" by Marchand and Meffre
from “The Ruins of Detroit” by Marchand and Meffre

Why would the whole of the Universe be a complex, self-organising and interdependent system, and a business be a top-down, controlled machine?  Why would the entire Universe be subject to the laws of Nature, and business, not?  It’s almost as some businesses they think they exist in some bubble, where the laws of nature are turned away by some bouncer: “You can’t come in here with that gravity.  Second Law of Thermodynamics?  Not in here, sunny Jim.”

My favourite programmes on telly are the ones about the universe and how it came to be.  One I was watching recently had a theme of complexity and order: how order arose out of the chaos of the Big Bang and formed some of the most beautiful sights in our solar system, such as Saturn’s rings.  The narrator kept describing the wonders of the solar system as complex and marvelled at how it organised itself over many billions of years, subject to the forces of nature.  As I watched, I was making connections to life here on Earth.  The point he made in the final minutes of the programme was that we are part of the same complex and wonderful solar system and subject to its same laws.   I made the link to organisations, to one client in particular and to one particular phenomenon of systems (you can’t tell a systems thinker to stop being a systems thinker in their free time, sorry).  I had a moment of thinking how many who “run” businesses think they are immune from laws of nature, or certainly behave like they do, acting out of old myths like some kind of Flat-Earther.

Complexity, ambiguity, dynamic change and uncertainty are not the new normal; they have been around since the Big Bang.  They are part of the fabric of the universe.  We have just been (unconsciously) shielding ourselves from the forces of nature by pretending we weren’t a part of it.  From the days of lords and serfs to the time we set out on the “scientific management” path, we have applied top-down control mechanisms on people to get them to work, like so many bits of a wind-up clock.  Many are finally acknowledging that complexity, ambiguity and so on are part of the fabric of organisational life.  Accordingly, we must adjust our ways of doing business to take account of these phenomena of Nature.

law of gravity

Just as, 1000 years ago, we “KNEW” that the Sun went around the Earth, just as we “KNEW” the Earth was flat, just as we “KNEW” that trepanation was a good cure for headaches , many organisations seem to “KNOW” that top-down command-and-control mechanistic structures, with a select few pulling the levers, are the best ways to run things.  I believe that if we don’t “unknow” some of the nonsense we still unconsciously adhere to, the forces of Nature will present us with some unpleasant surprises.  Even if we continue to “KNOW” that our business is a machine, it does not make it any less true that it is a living system, and thus subject to the laws of living systems.


A client who I described in a previous article was reflecting on 2012 recently and observed that they had made some progress in their business over the year.  By progress, he meant that

  • people were beginning to take up more responsibility and initiative without having to wait for the boss to tell them what to do
  • there was more discussion amongst the staff as to how to manage some of the day-to-day challenges they meet and less referring to the boss for the “answer”
  • mistakes were being used as entry points to examining business processes and working out how they could be improved
  • they had a clearer idea of their collective purpose and how important relationship is to achieving that purpose
  • the leaders were devoting more of their time to ensuring the conditions and structures of the business were optimised so that people could get on with their jobs (and less time micro-managing operational tasks).

Thrilling stuff.  He also reflected on how shifting the focus away from “behavioural problems” as isolated events and onto the business as a whole living system seemed to have injected some new life (his words, not mine) into the business: that they were actually going somewhere.  Here was an example of the practical benefits of applying systems thinking to overcoming business “stuckness”.  They started the year stagnating, with things getting worse, they injected some new learning into the system, they are now moving to another level of effectiveness.

Here’s the link to that TV programme and this client’s business: entropy.  As a living system, my client’s business is subject to the same laws that pertain to the rest of the universe.  One of these is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a corollary of which is entropy.  Entropy, crudely speaking, is the tendency towards death.  Social entropy, which applies to organisations, is a “measure of the natural decay of the structure or of the disappearance of distinctions within a social system.”  (Krippendorff)  As the whole of the universe tends towards randomness, or death, so do all the elements within it.  This is not to take a fatalistic approach and say “Why bother doing anything, then?”  There are forces that also act to retard entropy. Like with other living systems, some energy needs to go into the pot in order to counteract it.  My cup of hot tea will naturally cool down as heat is transferred away from it, but I can re-heat it by applying energy in the from of a microwave oven.

What does entropy look like in the business world?


How do we counteract entropy?

If a business is succumbing to natural entropy and feels like it’s losing track or going nowhere, how can we reheat it?  Let’s look to Nature.  How do other living systems in Nature counteract entropy?  They bring in more stuff.  Living systems find loopholes to counteract entropy.  In the context of the natural world, this shows itself as adaptation.  In the context of business, this means learning.  Closed systems that spend their energy simply on maintaining themselves in survival mode eventually spend themselves out.  If a business is spending too much of its time on hunting for food, and not enough on learning new ways to hunt for food, it will succumb to entropy.  Vibrant and open living systems naturally tend to greater complexity, experiment often, are driven to what is possible and seek new opportunities which destabilise them until they restablise in a renewed way.  They look for more stuff to put into the system to renew it.

 “Systems thinking is a response to the failure of mechanistic thinking in the attempt to explain social and biological phenomena.”  Lars Skyttner

Purpose, not anatomy

If something is not working, look at the bigger picture: purpose, relationships and interconnectedness of the elements.  Because entropy (a phenomenon of living systems) is affecting the business, taking a systems thinking approach will be the path to finding its counter-measures.  Merely looking at the anatomy of a business is not going to help us solve 21st century problems.  As Skytnner writes, the emergence of a holistic approach came about in an effort to provide us “an outlook to see better, a network to understand better and a platform to act better.”  This is something that is dear to my heart.  Systems thinking gives us a real-life, practical way to actually craft the way we do things better and more effectively, not simply some intellectual exercise that sounds lovely.

Systems thinking is not a prescription or method, it’s more of a perspective or way of approaching problems.  Systems thinking can help us to look for patterns within businesses, to see fundamental structures and their impact on the elements (the people, the departments, the sub-groups) within the business as well as on the relationships between those elements.

When living systems, such as a business, get to a certain point, they begin to entropy.  Unless something new is added to the system, it will tend towards death.  If we continue to apply the same-old, same-old solutions to address this problem, we are not bringing anything new into the system.  “Something new” requires learning.  Learn what is working well.  Learn what is not working well.  Learn where the connections are within the business.  Learn where the disconnects are.  Learn from the customer.

A business will not have sustainable life unless it is infused with energy from outside itself.  For a business to operate as a closed system, starving itself of innovation and creativity of its own people or ignorant of its customers and environment, entropy takes over.  It will tend towards death.  A “she’ll be right”, “it’ll sort itself out” attitude will lead to greater mess, greater randomness, and without new energy in the system to help deal with the mess, it will die away.  Things do not sort themselves out.  If I don’t maintain my house, it’ll eventually crumble over time.  This is a real example of how the Second Law of Thermodynamics affects us.  A hot cup of coffee will tend, over time, to lose heat.  A living system starved of nourishment will eventually cease to exist.  A business led by managers who see their role as nothing more than “competent supervision” will tend towards disintegration and eventually have a “Kodak moment” (not the picturesque kind).  To be successful, a business must adapt to its ever-changing environment and to its own ever-changing internal dynamics that emerge out of the interactions between all the elements within in.  A successful business must gain nourishment from outside its steady state: from innovation and creativity, from market information, from ongoing learning.  When a business applies systems thinking, it can find new ways to renew itself.

Businesses that will do well in this networked age will overcome the natural phenomenon of entropy by becoming open to what could be and taking steps to do something different.  They will learn to think bigger.  They will see learning and renewal of their business processes as part of their new culture of continuous improvement.  They will see the business as a living system and not a machine.  They will see mistakes as opportunities for learning and renewal, rather than through the old lens as a “disciplinary issue”.

When Harold Jarche says work is learning and learning is the work, I think he’s suggesting that for a business to thrive, it must place learning at the heart of everything it does.  Purposeful learning.  Learning that is not “training” as we have visioned it up till now.  Any training that is disconnected from the people is not sufficient.  Learning that is not about the work is not sufficient.  Real 21st century learning must change how we think, behave and interact with each other, as well as what we know.  It must be relevant to purpose, activity and relationships.  Not just one of those: all three.  A business, which is a living system, requires relevant learning in order to subvert that thing which happens to all living systems: entropy.

26 thoughts on “A Matter of Life and Death

  1. A very congruent post, and topical, in that I am presently working on a definition of e.g. Product Development as a wrestling match between organisational intention and entropy.

    Always enjoy your posts as they help me believe I’m on the right track.

    – Bob

  2. Hello John

    As I look around me what do I see? I see entropy at work. Recession and austerity. The financial services mess. The NHS. The collapse of the high street……

    And the cause? The addiction to individualism (Descartes), a clockwork universe (Newton), and a misapplication of Darwin (might is right).

    Whilst some see this recession/austerity as a disaster. I see history repeating itself – just take a good look at the Roman empire and how its collapse was brought on by abundant success. It is possible that if this austerity is severe/long enough then ‘change’ may occur.


    1. Hi Maz. Yes, I see what you see. If I take a step back and look at the things you identify as signs of social entropy, I agree that history is repeating itself. We will, as society did back in Roman days, fall into greater chaos, as natural living systems do. I believe we are in the transition from the old to the new, whatever that is (we probably won’t know until we get there). I watch a lot of what is going on with #occupy and dissatisfaction with the current elite and the institutions that have run the show up till now….and what I see is society beginning to renew itself by questioning, seeking new opportunity, moving towards disequilibrium and so on, until we eventually find a new order. Mirroring how the solar system was formed, I guess. Austerity is certainly, on many micro levels, causing pain and hardship. Something new is yet to emerge, though. As you point out, individualism, the Newtonian idea of the universe as a clockwork machine and the misinterpretation of Darwin will be transcended by something else. And I believe that this austerity will be prolonged, driving us towards the necessity to co-create the next way of organising ourselves.
      Thanks again for contributing.

  3. John, great post. I have been discussing this for years. Recently I tried to add Nassim Taleb’s and Emanuel Derman’s voices into the message to make it more plausible in this three post series.


    My subject is focused in process management as part of this outdated command-and-control management style.

    The response to the forward thinking is for example this:
    It doesn’t flame the likes of me, but asks whether there is too much disruption and if the disruptors should be tolerated. Interesting …

    The problem is that too many companies and people make a living from selling consulting, software and services. The majority of executives and managers are quite inept. All they have is an MBA or the like education. What could they grasp about entropy, emergence, and evolution? And even where scientists should have that background they apply illusionary mathematical models to predict something that is unpredictable.

    So we go on being the ‘disruptors’ …

    1. Max, great stuff. I’m on a Taleb kick too, great stuff. Disrupt, perhaps. I think I see myself as a catalyst, though disruptor wouldn’t sit too uncomfortably with me these days, in some cases. That first line in the BPM disruption article got me: “There are certain individuals in the BPM stream who seek to disrupt the status quo.” I read that and thought to myself, “Yea…. duh!” If society is to renew, it must bring in more stuff from outside our current models. I think, therefore, there is a role for a disruptor. There is a role for the folks who say, “The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.” India, for example, would have gained independence at some point in time, that system was untenable. But Gandhi, as the disruptor, moved things along, catalysed things. What was it he said again….”First they ignore you, then they laugh at you…..”

  4. As always I love reading your posts. Would you say that a related issue is the obsession with growth? Have you ever managed to convince a client not to grow, and that longevity is more important?

    1. Thanks Simon. Good one. I tend to focus on purpose with our clients. I know that “growth” seems to be the be-all and end-all of many businesses, but if that conversation arises, because we work with the whole system and are probably doing something experiential, we allow people the opportunity to stand in the shoes of as many “stakeholders” in their wider system, so that they get a felt sense of the impact pure growth will have on others. I think we’ve been fortunate in that we have mostly worked with clients who are interested in finding or refining their purpose, which, in my experience, hasn’t been “make lots more money”. It’s an interesting paradox, I believe (or I just haven’t understood it well enough yet), that a living system will strive for growth all the while subject to entropy…that a living system will tend towards equilibrium, but also tend to growth and change. But, again, if we look to Nature, I don’t see other species striving for growth for growth’s sake. In other words, they aren’t out to conquer the world and all those who live in it. They simply want to go on living and to replicate their species. ..and when it comes to convincing clients to do or not do something, we probably take an approach similar to Taleb, who says that he doesn’t tell people what to do, he tells them what he does. Frustrating for those who think our job is just to tell them stuff about things or to give advice. Our role is as catalyst to help them synthesise the relationships they require in order to co-create something new. Our role is as spontaneity trainers.

  5. It is unfortunate that so many continue to hold onto superstitious knowledge–believing to their death in what never was so–even when presented with a clear explanation how the world is (as you have done here).

    1. Thank you for adding in and I might even go further and say that it’s more than unfortunate, bearing in mind the effects those old notions have on people living their lives. A lot of that superstition is being disproved by science and I suppose it will take some time for those old ideas to just die away.

  6. aarrgh! I was starting a post today with a great big photo of the inside of the Detroit book depository!
    how odd. And today I’ve been bandying round the phrase “heat-death of the universe” as well.
    Not copying, but spooky synchronicity.
    I’ll find some other photos of derelict libraries to use, the way council’s are making cuts in this country, there’ll be no shortage of them soon enough.

  7. Love the post, John.

    To me, metaphorically speaking, perhaps, individual human growth (often referred to as leadership development) parallels the broader systemic dilemmas of organizations you point out so well here. Consciousness degrades through a process of entropy to unconsciousness. Genuine learning implies the reverse, birthing new consciousness; looking and really seeing, as you say. As lovely as systems thinking is, it seems to depend on a preference for consciousness, and therein lies a problem….as raw conscious awareness can be painful — the sort of thing we deeply wish for others but not necessarily ourselves. It can involve things like sorrow, regret, guilt, and anxiety, mistakes, problems I’m involved in, my shadows. The notion of emotional intelligence is one thing, but again it actually implies a more preferred, primitive, default state of not being aware or in touch. From a purely analytical angle, optimism around this point may appear to be little more than a new color of lipstick for the pig.

    Somehow we must move to a standpoint that is less about facing pain than discovering joy and fulfillment, the altogether wonderful transformational effects of what we and others are doing together, the results that stir us to say, “Man, I want to be in on this, too!” To use another old word, we need the inspiration.

    This is my own personal challenge, John. I love and am addicted to pointing out the bad news people have to get through — at least when I’m writing. But the truth is, when I’m face to face with a real person, someone who is in fact suffering (and who of my clients is not), I don’t want to focus there at all. I just want to help bring them toward something life-giving and empowering that’s already within them. I want to read them Rumi, not Sylvia Plath. Screw the entropy; in the moment, all I seem to want to do is offer hope.

    1. Thanks for adding in Dan. Your comments, as usual, are so insightful. I am with you when you say that raw awareness can be painful. I remember a mentor, co-worker and now a dear friend of mine from the days when I was a therapist, and working with people who had experienced incredible trauma in their lives, teaching me how to titrate my interventions. (I think we talked about this in one of our skype chats.) We can’t shove people’s noses into the mirror, rather we companion them and be with them gently as they unveil the next thing they need to learn about themselves. Feedback? Yuck. In many cases, feedback sounds exactly like that: dissonant screeching you’d hear from a microphone. I felt I had found my place when I discovered Moreno’s work, which, in my experience, at least, is about growing the progressive, seeking joy and freedom, building and not tearing apart. Rumi, indeed, and not Plath! I think I discovered through Moreno’s methods that development and evolution doesn’t have to be so painful. “What is the role you are trying to grow in yourself?” is the question and not “What is the thing you want to stop doing?” As if we can kill a “part” of ourselves off, like chopping off a limb. Aware that entropy affects us all, as the whole universe is heading towards its “heat-death”, I think the job of systems thinkers is to know this deeply to work on building hope, and as all other living systems, strive towards new opportunity and evolve. Learning, learning, learning…and it doesn’t have to hurt. From my own experience, I am utterly convinced of this. It may feel uncomfortable or unsettling or challenging at times, but painful? I don’t believe so. This is not to say there aren’t hidden things that would assist people to know about themselves, but there are ways and ways to warm them up to familiarising them with this stuff. Making sure they have a real hold of the resources in their lives, too, makes it easier. Easy is a good thing. One of my trainers regularly began his sessions with an introductory statement that let us know we would learn something and we would be easy with each other and we will work together to ensure there is ease in the room. I’m so glad that you are there bringing hope to your clients, Dan. Hope that things will change, hope that things will get better, hope that it is possible. Without it, where is the ease and how could they possibly begin to counteract their own entropy and birth something new for themselves?

  8. I often find myself talking to a room full of perplexed faces having a little epiphany. They never realised before, that what we know about the world “for sure” in 131 hours of our lives, seems to be summarily disregarded during a very peculiar 37 hours.

    Despite being able to get drunk, have sex, buy houses, bring up kids, start fights, drive cars and change the world during the 131 – during the 37, we’re not even allowed to change the toilet roll without permission in triplicate, a health & safety assessment and a certificate of competency aligned to a milestone target!

    Remember all you leadershippers out there, “it’s not you versus the staff, it’s you versus 14,500,000,000 years of evolution and you’re going to lose”

    Great blog!

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