Project Managers and Speed – Alice, and the Red Queen

1. Alice and the Red Queen

Did you ever read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

An English mathematician, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, wrote this novel in 1865. What may be less known is that soon after this, Lewis Carroll wrote a sequel to Alice in Wonderland.

This sequel is a novel titled Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

Alice crosses a mirror and 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!

When you look at your own environment, what do you see? Do not things seem to accelerate ceaselessly? I am sure you also find that our world is without respite, accelerating as if time is becoming shorter and shorter.

Running faster

2. The Ceaseless Race

When I was a young boy, getting a TV set was a hot business. While radio took around 40 years to achieve 50 million listeners, TV only required 20 years to enter in 50 million homes.

Nowadays, Facebook only required around 2 years to get 50 million subscribers. And Facebook counts now around 2 billion active users every month while Pokemon Go got 50 million players in less than 20 days.

Today, the volume of data memorized or shared worldwide is growing at a pace never seen before. We face an impossible challenge due to this huge growth of data produced and accessible. According to the consulting firm BCG, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day.

A single New York Times release contains today more information than what your grandfather would have accessed during his entire life a century ago. Wikipedia, launched in 2001, counts more than 40 million articles in more than 250 different languages, immensely more than for example the famous Encyclopedia Britannica.

3. Why Are We Running Twice as Fast?

The French physicist and astronomer François Roddier gives us some clarification in his book The Thermodynamics of Evolution:[1]

“The universe incessantly strives to maximize the speed with which energy dissipates. That this principle also applies to human evolution should therefore not surprise us.”

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

“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.”

What does it mean? Swenson and Turvey provided the following example[2] that clarifies how the law works:

“This is the example of a warm mountain cabin in cold snow-covered woods with the fire that provided the heat having burned out. Under these circumstances there is a temperature gradient between the warm cabin and cold woods.

The second law [of thermodynamics] tells us that over time the gradient or potential will be dissipated through walls or cracks around the windows and door until the cabin is as cold as the outside and the system is in equilibrium.

We know empirically though that if we open a window or a door a portion of the heat will now rush out the door or window and not just through the walls or cracks.

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

4. Speed Is the Result of a Positive Feedback Loop

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.”

The following figure explains the positive feedback loop driving the course of the evolution :


Open Systems have a five-step thermodynamic loop while looking for maximizing the speed with which they dissipate their energy or their information.

Human organizations, especially, are dissipative structures that are thermodynamically open systems operating out of, and often far from, thermodynamic equilibrium in an environment with which they exchange energy, information, and matter.

5. Social Organizations Self-Organize

A dissipative structure has the propriety to self-organize. By doing so, it diminishes its internal entropy by exporting it to the outside. It maximizes the entropy flow to the outside. In statistical mechanics, energy dissipation is called “entropy production.”[3]

As soon as 1922, Alfred Lotka, famous for his work in population dynamics and energetics, hypothesized that natural selection fosters organisms that capture and dissipate the fastest and the most efficient energy (or produce the most entropy). Lotka also explained why nature created structures capable to memorize ever more information.

Since then, 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. Energy and information are equivalent. Major consequences affect all of us.

First, when entropy increases, information diminishes, the past fades, and the future becomes more unpredictable.

Then, by dissipating energy, a system also modifies its environment. This is what Odrum confirmed later in 1955[4]:

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

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.

6. Why Project Managers Must Go Ever Faster

These laws have a consequence on natural selection. Natural selection is a physical process that maximizes the flow of energy.

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.

What means “dissipating more energy” for a project? Has a project that produces the largest energy flow more chance to succeed? Is this the key reason why the project management community develops approaches ever more agile?

Some companies love “Skunk Works”. If this designation originated in secret aircraft projects at Lockheed Martin, an American firm of the defense industry, it is often found in reorganization projects or new product introduction projects that remain for some time isolated from the outside world.

These projects look like thermos flasks. In such a closed system, any structure (all differences) progressively disappears. The liquid becomes lukewarm. Every move stops. There is an irremediable loss of information.

In reality, to be successful, projects must resemble open systems accepting to exchange energy and information with their outside environment.

An open system is in a thermodynamic unbalance.

Ordered structures and movements appear.
New information arises (and with its unpredictability).
Entropy diminishes.

The structures that appear within open systems self-organize by memorizing information on their environment.

That allows them to maximize the production of free energy and thus to “survive”.
And they doubtless do this by developing first a global brain based on all the brains of all the project stakeholders.

This is achieved by interconnecting effectively this community of stakeholders and by favoring the development of project information.
Traditional vertical approaches cannot compete anymore to deliver the same effectiveness.

7. Selection of Takeaways

  1. The universe incessantly strives to maximize the speed with which energy dissipates.
  2. Energy and information are equivalent.
  3. This principle applies to most projects.
  4. Successful projects resemble open systems that self-organize.
  5. They create new ordered structures, movements, and information.
  6. Information should freely flow within and outside the project environment.
  7. Your own takeaway… ?

To your continued success


High-Impact PMO

[1] François Roddier, Thermodynamics of Evolution, An essay of thermo-bio-sociology, Parole Editions, 2012.

[2] Swenson, R. and Turvey, M.T. (1991). Thermodynamic reasons for perception-action cycles. Ecological Psychology, 3(4), 317-348. Translated and reprinted in Perspectives on Affordances, in M. Sasaki (ed.). Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1998 (in Japanese).

[3] Dewar, R.C., Maximum entropy production and the fluctuation theorem, J. Phys. A: Math. Gen. 38 (2005) L371-L381.

[4] Odum, H.T., The maximum power principle, 1995.

2 thoughts on “Project Managers and Speed – Alice, and the Red Queen”

  1. Dear Philippe, I’ve enjoyed your article! I like to see processes thru physics, universe and all natural forces :-). My thoughts – I would advise Alice rather to slow down and take a step aside, for a brief moment, instead of speeding up. And observe as much as possible, in that moment, to be able to (re)gain leadership over the project. It is a learning moment, precious one, maybe never mentioned in any of lessons learned :-).
    Kind regards,

    • Dear Sanja,

      Thanks for your wonderful advice.

      I fully agree with the importance of stepping back for awhile. “Doing by not doing” would have said Mencius in the Ancient China. So many great people have spent years “in the desert” before undertaking their biggest works!

      I will surely include your comment in the next (4th) version of my book. Would you like to help?

      Kind regards



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