Scale is the name of the game, so I’ll be returning to it over and over. Benoit Mandelbrot asked the following question –
“How long is the coastline of England?”
I’d love to know how many souls who happen to stop by here respond with some incredulity, wondering how dumb a question that is, or wondering if it’s a trick question. Another response available is – Depends. Depends on the scale of the observation. And to some large extent, it depends on the available granularity of the measuring instruments (one instrument begin you and I. We can record observations to the best of our ability just like any other instrument made for that purpose, a telescope, a speedometer, a ruler (the demon that started my life’s quest way back in 4th grade!).
When I was a young scientist, a scinewb if you will, I came into the workplace full of fire and passion for these ideas of fractal and scale. I just knew everyone would love these ideas and we would change the world forever. Over the years, I’ve added a powerful, yet sobering at best, second reality about the business world. Fear of change. To be fair, coupled with a healthy and necessary dose of needing to make a profit, I get it. I’m not degrading or downgrading the reality that to rock the boat fits with the idea of skydiving – why would anyone want to jump out of a perfectly functioning airplane!?
I think I’ll save the answer to Mandelbrot’s question for the end of this article. For now, let’s keep going down the business path and I’ll speak of these ideas as if they were commonly accepted. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to tie them back to the history of business development and put forward the idea that the true risk is to take no risk! If it ain’t broke, time to break it.
Let’s go spiritual. Not the thanks to some higher deity kind of spiritual. That is something much more personal. Here I’m speaking of the wonders relating to the sum being greater than the parts. Have you ever considered what a social marvel it is when “you” wake up each day? What I’m speaking of here is the wonder that ten billion cells are able to cooperate and somehow make “me” remain “me” day after day. And if we zoom in further, that number balloons to include nearly infinite numbers of particles from the particle zoo, all continuously cooperating to create what we observe at our scale as human beings. And if we zoom out, New York City or Shanghi. And mid scale, governments and large corporations.
At every scale though, is this reality. There are literally infinitely many parts to the machine. And, per quantum, at the very bottom, it’s a lot more like bubbling pizza than a bunch of ping pong balls. If we add in the fractal question – which grain of sand starts the avalanche (more technically perhaps, systems that are sensitive to initial conditions), we can recognize that a) pretty much everything we think of as individual “things” are actually composites of a fantastically huge number of yet more individual things, that in turn are made up of even more things; and b) any one of those “things” can eventually change the course of history. It is now the fairly well-known idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in South America can cause a typhoon in Japan.
For business purposes (and pretty much all purposes in my thinking), the size of the effect is occasionally/sometimes/frequently (?) not related to the cause. An overheard conversation by a food critic about a great new restaurant it becomes wildly successful. Or a misplaced cigarette butt and the flames consume the building and adds great hardship to many peoples lives.
It is important to recognize that our ability to model and predict “systems” is not yet and likely never will be sufficiently robust to map every interaction at every level. This model is called the Great Watchmaker model. It was certainly held in high esteem by folks such as Isaac Newton and it remains popular as a common way to think of our world. There is a precise order to the Universe and if we just knew where everything is at one instant, everything else can be successfully predicted. In one of Einstein’s papers, he even apologized to Newton for overturning 300 years of mathematical reasoning.
But we know from both ordinary experience and relatively lately, though the study of fractals and their cousins, that “real life” is not so clean. Real life includes both overheard conversations and misplaced cigarette butts. And I believe no one would argue that any particular topic or system can ever be studied to finality.
- Systems are essentially infinitely deep. In this case, systems are defined as any size organization at least in this sense – small events ( a single grain of sand) can and will start avalanches of consequences, both good and bad, both short term and long term. Business must balance the resources required to make prediction versus the understanding that those predictions are suspect.
- Lack of predictability leads to the conclusion that the outcome of actions are not tightly predictable and therefore what might seem risky is actually equivalent to a more “conservative” path. at least in being able to fully predict the outcomes, positive and negative. I would say in my experience, a well-considered risk has always provided positive returns – although to notice those, one occasionally has to shift scale.
- Organizations can benefit from
- tight planning of near term – what is the next project in line?
- a generalized direction for the long term – what are we trying to achieve at the end of the process?
- the ability to allow the staff to do great work, all geared toward the generalized direction
- and most importantly, the ability to listen to what is being discovered.
This may sound like common sense, but think about what new frontier trails are being blazed by the smart people your organization has hired. And think about the last time you took advantage of those ideas to move your organization forward, both vertically and horizontally and occasionally into a completely new landscape.
One more note about systems. When we think about these giant systems, be they our bodies or a city or an organization, it is easy to recognize the individual units behave in all kinds of antithetical and arbitrary ways and yet the system seems to move forward under its own unique power. This idea refers to an earlier post regarding how far one would have to dissect a bird to see the flock. It’s likely not there even at the level of the DNA.
This one is running long so I’ll publish it now, but the next one will move into practical tools, how to know if you’re on the right track for innovation, how to overcome fear, how to measure success, hiring and succession planning, and probably a few more.