How Can Project Managers Navigate a World That Runs Ever Faster

Nature Always Selects The Fastest Route

Nature always selects the fastest route to get somewhere. For this reason, Project Managers must navigate a world that runs always faster.

Imagine that you are walking along a river bank. All of a sudden, you notice that somebody is drowning 500 meters below. Do you first jump into the river and swim? No you first run along the bank until you get close to the drowned person. And only then you jump into the water. Thus, you swim the shortest distance to the person.

In technical terms, the universe incessantly strives to maximize the speed with which energy dissipates.

In 1988, the American scientist Rod Swenson recognized the Law of Maximum Entropy Production (MEP) that states that:

the world will select the path or assemblage of paths out of available paths that minimizes the potential or maximizes the entropy at the fastest rate given the constraints.

That this principle also applies to human evolution. It especially applies to human organizations and businesses.

This is the famous Red Queen effect. It arises from a statement that the Red Queen made to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. This novel is a sequel to Alice in Wonderland.

In the novel, Alice crosses a mirror. She enters an alternative world. There she meets a White Queen and a Red Queen. Alice grabs the Red Queen, believing her to be responsible for all the day’s nonsense she finds in this world.

At some point, the Red Queen tells Alice:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

A Window As The Fastest Route For Heat

Let us see how this Maximum Entropy Production law works through an example. This example is how heat squeezes outside your home.

Imagine you live in a nice cottage. It is summertime. Under these circumstances there is a temperature gradient between the fresh air in the cottage and the hot air outside.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us something important. Over time the gradient or potential will be dissipated through walls or cracks around the windows and doors of your cottage. The cottage will soon become as hot as the outside. The whole system is in equilibrium.

At the beginning, hot air was outside, fresh air was inside. There was some kind of order. At the end, outside and inside air have the same temperature. They mixed up. Disorder has increased among the air molecules.

Now, if we open a window or a door a portion of the heat will now rush through the window or the door and not just through the walls or cracks.

In short whenever we remove a constraint to the flow (such as a closed window) the cottage / environment system will exploit the new and faster pathway thereby increasing the rate the potential is minimized.

Wherever it has the opportunity to minimize or ‘destroy’ the gradient of the potential at a faster rate it will, exactly as the Law of Maximum Entropy Production says.

A Growing Complexity As A Consequence

The universe follows this optimization algorithm supported by a positive feedback loop. It constantly thrives to maximize the dissipation of its energy or the entropy production rate. It does this by forming ever more complex structures. This is what the Nobel Prize of chemistry Ilya Prigogine explains:

The universe evolves by forming physical structures capable of dissipating ever more efficiently energy. Stars, planets, plants, animals, and humans form such a series of structures.

And projects are what contributes most to this acceleration in the field of business affairs. Hence the question: how can project managers navigate a world that runs ever faster?

Human organizations are dissipative structures. They are patterns which exhibit dynamic self-organization. Such structures are necessarily open systems: energy and/or matter are flowing through them.

These systems are continuously generating entropy, but this entropy is actively dissipated, or exported, out of the systems. Thus, they manage to increase their own organization at the expense of the order in the environment.

Such systems circumvent the second law of thermodynamics simply by getting rid of excess entropy. The most obvious examples of such dissipative systems are living organisms and social organizations. The business world today is a perfect example of a highly complex dissipative system maximizing the speed with which it dissipates its energy.

A Window As The Fastest Route For Information

A window also lets external sounds get inside. If closed, you may not hear anything from the outside world. If your neighbors discuss, open the window to get a chance of listening to their conversation and memorizing some of the interesting news they discuss.

Claude Shannon, an American mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer became “the father of information theory.” He is the first to have linked entropy and information.

Shannon developed information entropy as a measure of the uncertainty in a message. Entropy is thus a measure of our lack of information, our ignorance if you prefer. Since Shannon’s works, we know that entropy and information are two opposite aspects of a same concept. Major consequences affect all of us.

In the same manner, the dissipative structures import information from the outside.

A dissipative structure exports energy to the outside and imports information from its environment. It memorizes this information.

What About Natural Selection (Competition)?

These laws have a consequence on natural selection. Natural selection is a physical process that maximizes the flow of energy. This is the “Red Queen Effect” as we have seen earlier.

During self-organization, systems design, develop, and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.

By dissipating energy, a system modifies its environment. Since the environment has changed, the dissipative structure must adapt to the changes. It does this by dissipating ever more energy.

Mankind develops its well-being by maximizing the speed with which it dissipates energy, memorizes information, modifies the environment, and adapts to these changes. We self-organize and diminish our internal entropy by exchanging energy and information with the outside world.

positive_loop

Similarly, to species or civilizations, we can arguably apply this selection principle to organizations that become ever more advanced before eventually collapsing.

This clearly relates to project management in complex organizations. Project environments are equivalent to dissipative systems maximizing the speed of exchange of energy, information, and matter with their outside world.

A Few Tips Helping Project Managers Navigate a World That Runs Ever Faster

As a result, how can project managers navigate a world that runs ever faster? What can Project Managers do to navigate the Maximum Entropy Production law?

If the Maximum Entropy Production law is an universal law, there is only one way to navigate it safely: understand how it works, consider this wave as promising, and surf on it. It is surely not an easy journey.

Yet, here are a few tips that I learned during my career. I hope they will help you too.

a) Give your project a structure that maximizes the dissipation

  • Create, develop, accelerate interactions (number, volume, speed).
  • Yet create thresholds focusing on the most productive interactions (if you do not want to let you overwhelm by “noise”)
  • Empower people and eliminate or replace unnecessary, outdated or opposing constraints that may limit the dissipation.

b) Implement a nimble governance system

  • Establish governance that is nimbler than the ecosystem’s (Ashby law).
  • Look for the right equilibrium between planning and agility (Ulanowicz)
  • Co-evolve with your environment (and the changes you generated) with frequent changes rather than less frequent yet larger changes (Per Bak and the sand pile avalanches)

c) Import information from the outside, memorize it, updated it

  • Develop business / ecosystem intelligence.
  • Adapt culture, policies, and leadership beliefs in harmony with the changes.
  • Develop education, learning and development (transmitting memorized knowledge).

To Your Continued Success!

Philippe


The article is inspired from the 5th version of my book The High-Impact PMO, Why and how agile project management officers deliver value in a complex world” that you can buy on Amazon

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