Organization is the human way of dealing with the complexity of the world(1). When I say organization, I don’t mean strictly an enterprise, but any kind of formal or informal instance that brings people together under a shared purpose or the promise of an incentive — from book clubs or social activism, to startups or corporations… Organization facilitates the creation of order, and order is a low entropy state. It’s how we make our existence more bearable in a universe that otherwise craves disorder. It’s well-prepared food, electric cars, or skyscrapers that are built by organizing matter into states that could possibly occur but are highly improbable. It’s the laws, theories, or knowledge that we expand to decrease the uncertainty in the world.
The entropic concept I’m referring to is not thermodynamic entropy, but statistical entropy, which is a property of a probability distribution, not a real system, and as such is lacking any inherent semantics, it’s a purely syntactic concept(2). If something is ordered, it is constrained to the point where future outcomes are predictable as long as the constraints can be sustained(3). It does not matter if we talk about a service (an activity) or a product (a physical or a digital object), if the constraints are clear and the causality is linear — there is order. Consequently, if we understand the causality, we can replicate the outcome.
Hypothetically, organizations should not be characterized by disorder or uncertainty, so they would seem ordered. They operate within and around certain constraints, such as purpose, value system, field of focus, market, technology, legislation, etc. all of which, together with processes and standardized communication, should result in linear causality and predictable outcomes.
However, Apple, Google, Toyota, and many other organizations, consist of a large number of elements that in themselves can be simple. They exchange energy and information with their environment in order to survive, which implies that they operate at a state that as if far from equilibrium. Consequently, they have emergent properties and can adapt to changes. These are all attributes of complex systems(4). Additionally, because of their complexity, it’s not easy to draw a boundary around an organization. Is legal entity the boundary (but that’s just an abstraction), is the boundary physical, defined by office space (which many organizations in the post COVID era don’t have), or is the boundary around employees (but what about other stakeholders, like clients, partners, investors…)?
It seems like these organizations are in a superposition, being ordered and complex at the same time. In actuality the constraints that should produce predictable outcomes, such as structure, purpose, or processes, are abstractions, so they are not fixed — they are epistemically relative(5), and they are filtered through the beliefs and experiences of each individual(6).
Different people can internalize the same phenomena in different ways. I was present during a rift between two developers — one wanted to deploy a feature to production as soon as possible, comply with a timeline communicated to a client, and fix any potential issues as they emerge. The other wanted to postpone deployment because parts of the code could’ve been improved, if deployed they would add to existing technical debt, and could jeopardize the stability and scalability of the product. They were both right from a certain point of view. It was like the Doppler effect, the only difference being the source not emitting the sound waves, but a sense of urgency, which was growing on one side and diminishing on the other.
We might consider structure (hierarchy, roles, teams, departments…) as a rigid constraint, but even in situations when a role is described in detail, the description might be misinterpreted, or the actual job might encompass different or additional activities. Who decides where these activities stop? In situations when the job implies simple, mechanical tasks, this might be obvious, but what about situations when the job requires significant cognitive effort (like software development or service design) or complex social interactions (like policing or social care)? Is NO preventing anyone from doing work not described by their role? In some cultures or organizations, it is an expectation to do more, and I believe many have been in a situation where, for whatever reason, they went above and beyond at their job, even though they didn’t have to.
On the opposite side of this spectrum is the situation where a job is technically done according to the description or a requirement, but in reality, the desired outcome is only apparently achieved and order is not produced, it’s just a semblance of order. In China, this attitude is so widespread that it is commonly known as chabuduo(7) (good enough).
What we do and what we say don’t necessarily have to be the same thing. Humans are characterized by agency and intent (among other things) thanks to which we operate on more than the simple instinct of self-preservation(8), and it is not uncommon that we make suboptimal or irrational decisions(9). That being said, having well-designed processes or established communication standards does not guarantee predictable outcomes. Work can be presented as being conducted according to an official process, but in reality, completed by unofficial activities. This would make such an organization a block box, that statistically speaking, produces predictable outcomes in most cases, without really understanding how. This dissonance between abstraction of process and reality of process can happen when a process is designed in a vacuum, or employees are not trained properly, so the lack of clarity leaves room for misinterpretation.
If we take a step back from operational constraints that are shaping the day-to-day activities and look into purpose as a means to achieve a long-term, strategic goal, we have to ask — is it really shared purpose? whose purpose is it? what power dynamic gives privilege to that specific purpose over other possibilities? how is anyone internalizing the presented purpose? what is the social or cultural context of the purpose?
Working with startups in Europe and Asia for more than a decade, I noticed that in most cases purpose was dictated by whoever was holding the money, and everyone else was just coping with it — most employees were glad they have the security of a job; product people and designers believed that they’re helping customers; developers told themselves how at least they’re working with cool technology. This led to unintended consequences, like the realization of the circumstances eventually leading to a mass resignation, or the growth bringing in new money and stakeholders, causing seemingly irrational behavior in the existing management team.
There is no external or objective truth that we can readily generalize into purpose (or any statement) with universal meaning. The nature of reality is a subjective interpretation of an individual, and to ignore relativism and subjectivism is to ignore an aspect of the human condition. Having this in mind we have to pose the question how does each one of us experience any phenomena and build meaning around them?
Gravity is an example of a phenomenon that everyone has experienced, but that doesn't imply that we all experienced it in the same way. What does the gravitational acceleration of 9.8 m/s2 mean to you? How does gravity feel when you have to go up a long set of stairs? Is it hard? Is your hard harder than my hard? Does it feel good when the muscles start burning, a bit of sweat breaks out, and the heart starts pounding? Do you hate this feeling, are you motivated or annoyed by it, does it give you anxiety? How does your behavior change? How do you shape your environment to adjust to these feelings? How does gravity feel when you jump into a pool? How does it feel when you get back from the supermarket and try to carry all the bags from the car to the kitchen in one go?
If there were to be a source of universal collective experience, then anyone would be able to get into a car and reach an acceleration of exactly 9.8 m/s2 without problems. We wouldn’t need watches if everyone could experience time objectively, in the same way. Artists would be able to tap into this universal meaning and create works of art that are understood and appreciated by everyone. None of this is the case, and if our experiences around simple phenomena can differ, what happens when we get to more complex stuff?
Back in the 1970s Gregory Bateson wrote how in the natural history of the living human being, ontology and epistemology cannot be separated. Our often unconscious beliefs about what sort of world we live in, will determine how we see the world and act within it. And our ways of perceiving and acting will determine our beliefs about the nature of the world. We are thus bound within a net of epistemological and ontological premises, which regardless of ultimate truth or falsity become partially self-validating(10).
To go back to the initial point about organizationalsuperposition, it is up to each one of us to perceive an organization as either being ordered or complex — the ontology is shaped by epistemology and vice versa(11). This perception has a temporal dimension though, no state is permanent, and what seems organized today can become complex tomorrow.
Also published here.