The Sand Pile Effect

The world is about to breach a critical threshold in the global geopolitical dislocation. And as with every breach of threshold in a complex system, this will generate a suite of nonlinear phenomena: developments that do not conform to the usual rules and the traditional projections, be they economic, monetary, financial, social or political.

LEAP 2020[1]

Imagine you are on a beach of fine, golden sand.

Take a shovel and a bucket. Build a castle by pouring wet sand regularly on what will become the chateau of Sleeping Beauty. The pile of sand becomes higher and higher. Now and then, the heap of sand slides in avalanches from the top. Isn’t it frustrating?

This experiment was built by Per Bak[2], Chao Tang, and Kurt Wisensefeld, a group of physicists at the Santa Fe Institute in the 1980’s. Per Bak was a twentieth century Danish theoretical physicist. He coauthored the 1987 academic paper that coined the term “self-organized criticality.” Their beach was a table in their laboratory where the experiment repeated your sand pile and its avalanches.

What’s interesting is that, when piling higher, sand piles achieve a rest angle and a rough stationary state. As the sand is poured ever more upon the sand pile, we see many small avalanches of sand occurring. From time to time, we see a large or very large slide occurring. The sand rest angle weaves around a critical value without ever stabilizing. Figure 1 describes this phenomenon.

Figure 1 – Sand piles produce avalanches around a critical slope and their size is inversely proportional to their frequency.[3]

There is no typical size for sand pile avalanches.

If you try to estimate the weight of human beings, the more humans you will weigh, the better you will become in ability to estimate their mean weight.

Conversely, if you try to estimate the size of the sand piles avalanches, the more avalanches you will observe, the greater your chance to see an avalanche size bigger than any previous one.

Repeating the experiment long enough, you will see massive avalanches, although these may be rare in occurrence. This remains true whatever the grain of sand.

This is a power law[4]. Per Bak and his friends have shown that it was a law in 1/f. What does it mean? F is the frequency of the avalanches. The function is the size of the avalanches. The more frequent the avalanches, the smaller they are. And the less frequent they are, the bigger they are.

Big events can be triggered by the same tiny (and invisible or undetected) cause.

An example of self-organized criticality.

A sand pile organizes itself until it tunes itself to a critical state of its rest angle. Each small avalanche cascades other small avalanches, thus redistributing its energy information from one group of sand to the other.

Complexity originates from the tendency of large dynamical systems to organize themselves into a critical state, with avalanches or “punctuations” of all sizes.

Large systems do not need massive movers to move immensely.

Ecosystems tune their structure to a poised regime between order and chaos, between subcritical and supra-critical behavior, with power law avalanches. What we observe here can also apply to flooding of rivers, to many biological systems, to earthquakes, and, most importantly for you, and to all kinds of social organizations as well.

Organizations also are oscillating between order and chaos.

They permanently self-organize by importing energy and information while exporting to the outside the maximum possible production of entropy.

In his book The Thermodynamics of Evolution, François Roddier explains that[5]

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.

Finally, we know since Claude Shannon that entropy and information are equivalent (though with a different sign). Exporting entropy to the outside is done by importing information from the outside. An organization that closes on itself ends up “lukewarm” and cannot produce any work. Organizations open on their external environment import information on the evolution, the expectations, and the other players of this environment. By doing so, they generate the equivalent of avalanches that are reorganizations, small and large, frequent and infrequent.

This is a lesson for anyone working in the domain of Strategy and Project Management.

Sometimes as a Strategy Management Officer or a (Strategic) Portfolio and Project Manager, you will be part of “something” sparking the avalanche. Sometimes you will stay a spectator or a watchman awaiting the next “Big One.”

Remember though that even if a Big One is a sure event, no one can predict when it will happen.

Yet, getting on board of a Big One is often the opportunity of a lifetime. Do not miss such a chance to be engaged in something big.

Look at the example of bicycles. Bicycles were introduced in the late nineteenth century in Europe (around 1885). This has been a lifetime event. By the early twenty-first century, more than 1 billion bicycles have been produced worldwide. They now outnumber cars. However, only modest improvements have followed the first time humans used only two wheels in tandem as a means of transport.

Key Takeaway

Regardless of the situation, playing with the waves of the inevitable successive reorganizations (avalanches), and especially big ones, is a chance for the Strategy and Project Management Community willing to catch opportunities to favorably surf on these waves and learn to develop favorable impact.

To your continued success

Philippe

This article is an extract of my book The High-Impact PMO . You can also read some related articles here:

High-Impact PMO


[1] LEAP (Laboratoire Européen d’Anticipation Politique) 2020, GEAB49, November 2010.

[2] Bak, P., How Nature Works, The Science of Self-Organized Criticality

[3] https://source.wustl.edu/2015/06/functioning-brain-follows-famous-sand-pile-model/

[4] A power law is a functional relationship between two quantities, where a relative change in one quantity results in a proportional relative change in the other quantity, independent of the initial size of those quantities: one quantity varies as a power of another. Source: Wikipedia

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

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