Organizational Entropy

Entropy is a measure of the energy in a system that is not available to do useful work, and the second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy in a closed system always increases.  Basically, in any system, the cruft builds up over time until it’s all you’ve got left.  This is a physics concept, but it can be easily applied to organizations, governments, companies, and just about any other collection of individuals (i.e. a “closed system”). Some examples:

  • Paying taxes requires accountants, lawyers, software applications, and a large number of government employees to maintain and enforce the rules.
  • Maintaining an existing software project can often take more programmers than building a new one. If you are a coder, how many times have you seen comments like this in a codebase: “// TODO: clean this up!”.
  • Companies have big binders filled with regulations and entire departments to manage and interpret them, while they work they do becomes less innovative over time.
  • Installing a game on your iPhone requires you to “read” 30 pages of terms and conditions first.

And so on.

So how does one battle the symptoms of organizational entropy?  The same way you battle any type of entropy: by increasing the amount of useful energy in a system through the removal of the junk .  You make a habit of regularly examining what you do and why you do it.  Don’t take anything for granted: “because that’s the way it’s done” is never a valid answer.  Question the motives and you may discover that the original reason for a rule, a regulation, or a piece of code no longer exists, and you need to change it, or even better, remove it.

Re-examine the tax code and clean it up every few years.  Take away the software and accountants and make members of Congress do their own taxes by hand.  Spend 20% of your coding time going back over modules and cleaning them up a piece at a time.  Put the HR managers or lawyers into a room, and have them read the handbook and defend each section’s existence.  Clean your garage and throw out stuff you haven’t used in the last year.  Not only does that reduce entropy, it even gives you extra space for that new bike.

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