Dennis Sherwood takes thermodynamics as the model for three laws to extract the best possible work from organisations. Welcome to the new science of organodynamics.
What are the key characteristics of a high-performing team?
One response to this familiar question is: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, highlighting the fact that a high-performing team delivers a collective outcome greater than its individual members could achieve by themselves. But how does the surplus arise?
It is attributable to a phenomenon illustrated by the sentence: “I went to the bank”, the meaning of which does not reside in any single word such as “went”, but is a property of the sentence as a whole. This is an example of emergence: a property which exists at the level of a well-connected system (the sentence), but does not exist at the level of any of the component parts from which that system is formed (the individual words). A sentence is just one instance of a well-connected emergent system. Others are hurricanes (an emergent property is the shape) and human beings (life).
A further characteristic of a well-connected emergent system is that it is highly ordered: “I went to the bank” is not a random jumble of arbitrary words, but is formed from specifically selected words, grouped together in a deliberate sequence. This is evident in comparison to: “Went bank the I to”, which contains the same words but in a different sequence and is meaningless. Order can be measured by entropy, such that a low number for a system’s entropy corresponds to a high level of order. Conversely, a high entropy implies low order. Well-connected emergent systems are therefore also characterised by low entropy, maintained over time.
My answer to the question: “What are the key characteristics of a high-performing team?” is therefore: “A high-performing team is a group of people brought together in such a way as to form a well-connected system, maintaining low entropy over time, with the emergent result that the team achieves much more than the individuals ever could working by themselves.”
If we wish to build and sustain a high-performing team, we must therefore satisfy two conditions. First, we need to build a well-connected system and second, we must keep the entropy of that system at a low level over time.
This second condition, however, presents a problem: keeping the entropy of any system at a low level over time is, apparently, contrary to a law of physics known as ‘the Second Law of Thermodynamics’. In essence, this law states that the entropy of the universe increases, implying that all ordered systems naturally and spontaneously descend into chaos. It is possible, however, to overcome this law, so creating order out of chaos, but only if energy is continuously pumped into the system of interest. This applies to human beings – the energy comes from our food, and ultimately the sun – and it applies to teams, too. To sustain the order necessary for the continuing high performance of a team, not only must the team members be well-connected, but there must also be an unremitting flow of energy into the team; energy that keeps the team’s entropy low, maintains its order and stops it from degenerating into a chaotic rabble.
Thermodynamics – of which I have just cited the Second Law (of three) – is an important branch of science and engineering. Developed during the 19th century by intellectual giants such as William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Max Planck and James Clerk Maxwell, thermodynamics explores the question: how much useful work can you get from an engine?
So, let me now introduce organodynamics, which explores how much useful work can be achieved by an organisation. This, of course, is all about how to build and sustain high-performing teams. As you will see, organodynamics synthesises the somewhat ethereal concepts of well-connected systems, emergence and entropy with the down-to-earth organisational concept of the team. And like thermodynamics, organodynamics centres on three “laws”.
The First Law
Organisational energy must continuously be created lest the organisation itself be destroyed. That’s what leadership is all about.
In contrast to the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that physical energy can neither be created nor destroyed, the First Law of Organodynamics states quite the opposite: that organisational energy must continuously be created. For if it isn’t, the organisation will degenerate and fall apart. This therefore throws the spotlight on how fundamentally important it is for energy to be injected into, and continuously to flow through, a team, so as to maintain the order high and the entropy low.
This happens in sport, where the teams on the pitch have energy pumped into them by the cheering crowd (imagine how leaden a game would be if the teams just ran around in an empty stadium). The crowd, of course, is not the only source of energy for the team: there’s the team manager, too and we all know that the most compelling attribute of a great team leader is that person’s ability to make you feel good, to motivate you, to lift you when you feel down, to keep you going when times are tough. Indeed, the very words we use to describe great leaders – “energising”, “exciting”, “dynamic”, “stimulating”, “invigorating” – are all about how great leaders unceasingly inject energy into their teams.
This constant pumping of energy into other people places a huge demand on leaders and explains why leadership is so tiring. It also raises the question: Who pumps energy into the leader?”
With the First Law in mind, here are some pragmatic questions:
- What are the energy flows through your organisation?
- What are the sources of that energy?
- How is that energy maintained?
- Do all levels of leadership have a shared vision?
- Do they articulate it consistently to their teams?
- As a leader, what specifically do you do to pump energy into your team?
- How do you know that what you are doing is having the desired effect?
- How do you ensure that the energy flow is transmitted right through the team, without dilution or distortion?
- How do you replenish your own sources of energy? And what do you do when you yourself are flagging?
- What are you doing to encourage others to become their own sources of energy, so that they are progressively less reliant on you?
- As a team player, how do you demonstrate to the leader that you appreciate the energy source?
The Second Law
Organisations will spontaneously degenerate into chaos and can only be prevented from doing so by ensuring effective connectedness between all the constituent parts of the organisation, with each constituent part voluntarily constraining their behaviour in accordance with the interests of the team.
The Second Law of Organodynamics stresses that, in addition to the energy flow required by the First Law, the maintenance of order – and hence the team’s ability to perform useful work – depends critically on the effective connectedness between the constituent parts of the team and the constraints on individual behaviour.
Connectedness relates primarily to team selection, roles and communication; the issue of constraints recognises that individuals have choice and that in a high-performing team, team players continuously, spontaneously and voluntarily take choices that are to the benefit of the team, not themselves. Just as an engine won’t work if its constituent parts are connected any-old-how, so a team won’t work if its component parts are not well and effectively connected and all acting in a concerted way.
There is an alternative statement of the Second Law of Organodynamics, which is a mirror of the Second Law of Thermodynamics stated in the form: “It is impossible to construct a device which operates in a cycle and has no effect other than performance of useful work and the exchange of heat with a single reservoir”. Accordingly, in organodynamics, we can state: “Not only is it quite possible, it is absolutely inevitable that an organisation will continue to go round in circles, generating increasing amounts of heat, and progressively less useful work, unless the organisation deliberately chooses to do otherwise”!
So, in terms of the Second Law:
- As a leader, what criteria do you use to select your team members?
- What, specifically, do you do to ensure that team members are well-connected?
- How do you ensure all your team members understand the importance of constraining their behaviours and of taking decisions which are in the interests of the team rather than themselves?
- What concrete examples are there of situations in which choices or decisions have been made in which team players have constrained their behaviour to optimise the team’s performance, rather than their own? And to optimise their own performance rather than the team’s? What can we learn from this?
- Within your team, what are the “rights” of team membership? What are the “obligations”? How explicit are they? Are they both well-known, understood and respected throughout the whole team? How do you know?
- When someone new joins the team, how do they find out about these “rights” and “obligations”?
- What happens when someone oversteps their “rights”? Or consistently fails to honour their “obligations”?
- When you have been a team member, can you think of situations in which you did not constrain your behaviour in the interests of the team? Why not? What insight does that give you as to how, as a leader, you can encourage others to do the “right” things?
- Do the objectives, targets and performance measures applied to the different parts of the enterprise encourage collective or individual behaviours?
- What are the contexts in which the different parts of the enterprise interact? Are these interactions harmonious and productive? Or are they adversarial and dysfunctional?
- Are goals, objectives, policies, procedures and processes naturally aligned, or are they all-over-the-place?
- What is the nature of the communication between the different parts of the organisation?
- How well do people in different parts of the organisation know one another?
- Fundamentally, how strong is mutual trust?
The Third Law
Although in science absolute zero temperature cannot be attained, organisations can hit rock bottom: ultimately, organisations end up with the cultures they deserve.
Where the Third Law of Thermodynamics states that the absolute zero of temperature can never be attained, the Third Law of Organodynamics states that the rock bottom of organisational behaviour is all-too-easy to reach.
What happens when someone new joins an organisation? Very quickly, they sense the behaviours that are acceptable and those that are not. For the most part, this causes little tension, but there may be one or two areas where the accepted behaviour within the organisation is in conflict with what the individual feels is the right thing to do. What happens then? I suggest one of three things:
- The individual can agree to conform and willingly change their personal preferences in order to conform.
- The individual can become sullen and uncooperative – or, worse, a “terrorist’” pretending to conform but doing his or her best to commit “sabotage” whenever the opportunity arises, until such time as the individual’s behaviour is resented by the organisation, at which point, the individual is expelled.
- The individual chooses to leave voluntarily.
The first option results in the individual conforming. The second and third options have the same result: the dissenting, nonconforming individual leaves the organisation. Over a period of time, therefore, organisations end up with the cultures they deserve, as only those people who tolerate that culture will survive or choose to remain. Everyone else is either fired or resigns. The culture is perpetuated – unless a leader deliberately decides to do something about it. How? By injecting energy; by ensuring appropriate selection and connectedness; and by redesigning the constraints.
So, thinking of the Third Law…
- To what extent, if any, do different parts of the organisation compete for the same resources (markets, customers, products, people, investments)?
- What is the nature of that competition? Is it co-operative (we both recognise that the resource is finite, so we voluntarily agree to share it so as to optimise the outcome for the organisation as a whole) or adversarial (I’ll grab whatever I can, regardless of both my need and yours)?
- To what extent do the processes for performance measurement, recognition and reward encourage or discourage behaviours which optimise the performance of the team rather than the individual?
- When a new manager takes over, does that manager take over the “in-tray” as “work-in-progress”, accepting his or her predecessor’s decisions, or does he or she say: “We need to review this”?
- What concrete examples are there of dysfunctions and disconnects? What can we learn from this?
- Most people are usually members of at least two different teams simultaneously, namely “this team” and “my family”. Sometimes the demands of these different teams conflict, creating a situation in which fulfilling the commitments to one team inevitably means the other is let down. How do you, and your teams, acknowledge, manage and resolve this problem?
- What is the nature of peer group pressure? Is the culture a network of “mutual, bilateral, nonaggression treaties” in which I mind my own business and expect you to mind yours? Or is the culture one of trust and safety, where we can each speak our minds professionally and honestly?
The Zeroth Law
Aficionados of thermodynamics might have come across the so-called “Zeroth Law”, which states: “If two bodies are in thermal equilibrium with a third, then all three bodies are at the same temperature”. Its analogue in organodynamics is: “If two organisations are in equilibrium with a third, then all three organisations are dead”. Stasis is a step on the road to organisational extinction.
Change, evolution and dynamism are essential for survival.
Dennis Sherwood (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing director of The Silver Bullet Manufacturing Company Limited, which specialises in organisational creativity and innovation (silverbulletmachine.com). He is a Sloan Fellow of London Business School and author of nine books, including Smart Things to Know about Innovation and Creativity (2001) and Seeing the Forest for the Trees – A Manager’s Guide to Applying Systems Thinking (2002)