You, your organisation and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

There – an object lesson in how to grip an audience with a title. 

But bear with me. Behind the wordy headline there might be a few nuggets worth reading, not least because I’ve done extensive background research (15 minutes online, which I understand is sufficient these days to support a firmly-held opinion). From this I see that I’m not the first person to wonder whether the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to organisations. It does, after all, apply to everything else. 

For those of you not familiar with it, the Second Law stipulates that the Universe tends to increasing disorder, or ‘entropy’. There are various colloquial ways of capturing this phenomenon, and my personal favourite is putting milk into a cup of tea. Easy to put in, very hard to get out again. The only way to do so, I’m guessing, would be some extreme distillation process requiring a huge input of energy. Probably not worth the bother. 

And so to the organisation. I honestly don’t know whether the Second Law can actually be applied to organisations, or just provides a good metaphor. While I’m trying to avoid doing something akin to ‘quantum woo’ here, I’m probably enough of a scientist to recognise the pitfalls of mistaking analogy for actual science. And thinking about organisations in terms of entropy can give you an oblique and helpful vantage point into the problems they face, particularly regarding change. 

As organisations evolve and grow, the resultant organogram develops branches, new directorates and divisions that each come with their own smaller organograms into which slot individual human beings. The more people there are in the organisation, and the greater the number of structures into which they fit, the greater the organisational complexity. 

Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

Each of those human beings then has a stake in their place in the organisation and, with few exceptions, prefers stability to further change. They compound their stake with rule books and forms, custom and practice, ‘the way things are done around here’. 

Superficially, this feels like something very ordered. But if you look at it from a Second Law perspective, entropy (and hence disorder) increases with the organisation’s evolution. The milk is being stirred very thoroughly into the tea. 

The disorder also resides in the fact that every constituent entity in the organisation will tend towards finding its own direction. Considerable energy then needs to be invested in keeping everything aligned with the rest of the corporate enterprise. If leaders and managers don’t work at keeping everything going in the same direction, day-in, day-out, order is hard to maintain. A football coach would describe this as the team needing to keep its shape. 

People, being people, have a tendency to do their own thing. They introduce their own methods and systems, build their own teams, create as much local autonomy as they can. There’s a tension here: local autonomy can be very healthy as the people closest to delivery often know most about it. But it still has to align with the organisation’s overall aims. All too often, it can detach itself, and the constituent parts of the corporate body struggle for alignment.  

Once this complexity has been baked in, the entropic organisation might struggle to align with the reality it exists to serve. This is when it most needs to change, but can’t. The milk’s in the tea, and getting it out again requires more energy than many organisations can muster. 

So think of the organisation in its broadest sense as a sprawling, interconnected, faux logical entropic entity. Every time you invest energy in trying to bring it back into order, there’s a significant possibility that, at best, it will side step the attempt, and at worst, will lurch still further towards the irreversible complexity that, like a bramble round a bush, strangles any attempt at reform. 

And if you want it to adapt, because the reality onto which it maps has changed, you have either to unravel some of the disorder, or let it wither on the vine while you create something new that will do the job instead. 

The application of the Second Law probably extends beyond the organisation and into the world of politics. How else to explain the UK’s archaic political institutions, with a Parliament housed in a decaying 19th Century building, a Government chosen through a grossly unrepresentative electoral system and a set of political rituals more appropriate to Gormenghast than a modern democracy? Forgive the slightly gratuitous shift in gear, but I think it’s a point worth making.

I wonder also – and I admit that this is stretching the analogy – whether there’s such a thing as an entropic mindset. If you’ve become part of the disordered structure, are you compelled to say the things that reinforce it? How else, for example, to explain the contorted defence of existing ways of doing business which, to any rational analysis, are simply illogical? 

The application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the organisation doesn’t mean nothing can change. Of course it doesn’t. Even as the Universe slowly dies as entropy increases, new stars and galaxies continue to form. Maybe not a particularly cheerful note to strike, but as we still have many billions of years until the heat death of the Universe occurs, we’ve still got time to think about, and attempt to tackle, our organisational entropy problems.

Away from the vastness of the Universe and back into the confines of your organisation, surviving and thriving needs you to recognise the entropic nature of the world you inhabit. Be prepared, then, either to go wholesale in managing the entropic disorder, or to find a totally new way of doing things that addresses the constraints of the existing organisation. 

In other words, you might need to re-engineer what you do in order to extract the milk from the tea; or make a completely fresh cup. 

Photo by Philippe Donn on Pexels.com

10 thoughts on “You, your organisation and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

  1. I wonder whether your view is coloured by the fact that you worked in a particularly non-unitary organisation. In fact, the MOD was not a single department, but a collection of viciously competing vested interests, each with their own loyalty – not to MOD, but to their own sub-set of it. Heseltine tried, but failed, to overcome this. In my cabinet office days I was struck by the fact that when I chaired interdepartmental meetings, the FCO would send someone to explain the foreign policy perspective, the Treasury would send someone to say we had no money, the DTI would send someone to explain the trade perspective, and the MOD would send four people who would proceed to bicker with each other about what the defence line ought to be.

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    1. An interesting thought, Richard. Of course my career history is a factor in my perspective, but I also worked in a number of other organisations and with a great many more. Among large organisations, I think it’s probably wrong to imagine that any are particularly ‘unitary’, because they necessarily embrace many different cultures. Think of the NHS for example, with clinicians, managers, support staff, the ambulance service and so on. Any large commercial enterprise will have people producing whatever the product is, marketeers, financiers, IT specialists and so on. I think as soon as you lay down any kind of organisation, even the more fluidly structured ones you tend to find in the tech sector, you increase entropy. And as for your description of your time in the Cabinet Office, I can honestly say that wasn’t my experience at those kinds of meetings, though of course you’re right to say that the MOD does have different communities, not least the three Services/ four Commands/ Defence Civil Servants, as well as cultures within each Service, such as RM within RN.

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      1. I may have added a little colour for effect. But I definitely chaired meetings on export controls where the MOD brought both a defence sales (let’s sell as much as we can to as many people as we can) and a pol/mil (let’s not destabilize an already delicate situation) perspective. And I did find myself asking on occasion, “Just what is the MOD position, exactly.”

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      2. That example, Richard, breaks the first rule of Departmental representation at cross-Government meetings: agree your Departmental position before entering the room!

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  2. Roger

    There is indeed a tension, some might say battle, going on in every organisation between the second law of thermodynamics you’ve identified and one of my favourite laws; Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety.

    Which perhaps explains why lots of people in organisations express the view that everything is always changing at the same time as fundamentally the same organisation doesn’t change at all, and becomes irrelevant. The result, it stops existing because of a failure to keep up with the variety that is present in the environment within which it operates.

    Maybe this helps to explain the rise and fall of nations and not just organisations?

    This is particularly relevant perhaps IMO to your comments about our parliament and democracy; so thanks for taking this detour in your blog.

    In an era where new technologies are deployed on a global scale it seems to me the rate of change in our environment is accelerating and perhaps is threatening the existence of the nation state ? Your thought?

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    1. I’ve not heard of that one, Gary, but I do recognise the phenomenon. I think there’s a difference in private and public sectors on this: the evolutionary pressures on private sector organisations are such that they can cease to exist (and the high street is full of examples at the moment); whereas in the public sector, we might occasionally see changes in the machinery of Government, but external pressures don’t necessarily lead to adaptation in terms of structures (though they do in terms of behaviours, as during the current crisis). A possible exception is the creation of the Government Digital Service to enable Government to adapt to a changed digital environment, which was (in the language of the blog) equivalent to making a completely fresh cup of tea.

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  3.  

    Roger – I wonder if there is any kind of human or physical theory that would cast light on the optimal size/shape of an organisation? And indeed whether a lot of the behaviour that you describe is actually people working to assimilate the sense of an organisation of an optimal size and shape around them? In other words, people in organisations that are below a size that would provide optimal economies of scale, negotiating power, public profile, room for error, etc, etc, will be working to create a sense of being part of that larger organisation (hence e.g. trade associations). Meanwhile in those organisations that have grown (or been made) so large that the benefits of scale have inverted into disbenefits, people will be more likely to wilfully localise their thinking, behaviours and procedures, simply to achieve the best possible results. And perhaps the worst kinds of dysfunctional behaviour (e.g. wilful promotion of sociopaths, incoherent decision-making) occur where excessive effort is put into making people conform, against their better judgement, to centralised rules, standards, decisions, and identities that aren’t adequately aligned or attuned to local interests.

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    1. All excellent points, Walter. Isn’t there something about humans only being able to retain a certain number of relationships in their heads (c. 200) because that was the maximum size of the earliest social groupings in out evolutionary history? I guess that’s in part why large organisations have to be sub-divided the way they are, which means they can continue to function, but that also means they increase entropy at the same time. Lots of food for further thought here!

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      1. Thanks Roger. I didn’t know about the 200 principle, but it does make sense. Far be it for me to suggest a future post taking this consideration further…

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