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Inertia, Chaos

Here’s a useful mental device I’ve been using a lot in the past year: There are two constant forces putting stress on any kind of organization: inertia and chaos. Each individual and each action increases these forces to different degrees.

Here is how I think about this idea and how it can help understand and navigate organizations.

Inertia

Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

People are subject to what behavioral scientists refer to as status quo bias: a preference for the current state of affairs. Once we get entangled in a belief or a habit, it takes a lot of energy to make it go away. You don’t update your deeply held opinions the minute you hear a sound counter-argument, nor do you immediately put a stop to your harmful habits as soon you learn how detrimental they may be. Status quo bias is similar to the physical concept of inertia, as described by Newton’s first law of motion, which states that an object will remain at rest or in motion unless acted upon by an external force. In a society too, a behavior will keep on occurring unless altered by a strong enough condition.

Inertia has two consequences.

Everything is hard

Whatever goal you’re pursuing will take a huge amount of energy to achieve: you’re fighting against societal inertia. The (social) universe is indifferent to our visions and ambitions. What it is currently like, it will tend to stay that way. People will keep on doing the things they do the way they already do it. Your innovations, as much an improvement you believe they are to the current circumstances, will require a lot of effort to make a dent in the world. Many products whose utility or appeal appear obvious to our contemporary minds - bikes, energy drinks, lightbulbs, cars or even movies with sounds. - received a less than enthusiastic welcome when they were first introduced. Building something great is not the end goal. Getting society to use it is.

Keeping things in check

Internally, inertia makes organizations less eager to experiment and change their ways. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if their environment didn’t change as well. But it does, and basic Darwinian wisdom indicates that immutability is often the precursor to extinction. One of the most common complain of creative and energetic collaborators working inside a large organization is the stillness and apathy of the management. But managers‘ bias against novelty is rational given their position. Their job is not to experiment, their job is to keep the company afloat and making sure orders from the top effectively translate to action from operators. Managers are inertia agents. The degree of their commitment to that purpose depends on their personality and the corporate structure. The trick to getting managers to co-opt new ideas is by framing them, not as risky but fresh novelties with potential paybacks, but as the unconventional but ultimately logical and sober next step of something already in place. Something that isn’t that much of a change, actually. Inertia’s grip on the world implies that incremental change is more effective than revolutions.

The world’s cement

Inertia is not intrinsically bad - it’s essential to any functioning society. A world without any kind of social inertia would be insane. Picture yourself going to work, only to realize that your company decided to pivot to a totally different kind of business and replace half of its team. Checking the news, you would learn that your country voted to change its name for the 3rd time this month. You would then receive a call from your significant other announcing that they’re moving to another city on this very day. Finally, on your way back home, a few teenagers would ruthlessly mock you with new lingo invented the previous week because of your out-of-fashion (2 months old) shoes. A moderate amount of resistance to change is a good thing. This is how wealth and comfort are possible.

Chaos

There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns. If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can’t decipher. What we can’t understand we call nonsense. What we can’t read we call gibberish
Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor

Here’s a simplified version of Darwinian evolution: In a given population, individuals differ. Sometimes, mutations appear among these individuals. These mutations may have an effect on particular traits of these individuals, like their appearance or behavior. It may be that these modified traits help individuals get ahead when it comes to survival and reproduction, or it may penalize them. Evolution happens when a particular mutated trait is favored by the environment, leading its bearers to thrive and progressively diffuse it among their population. Societal evolution works in quite the same way. Mutations pop up in some areas - say, a musician using an instrument in an unusual way. If this new sound pleases its audience, it will gain popularity and then be copied by other musicians and what used to be experimental and fringe will be the mainstream.

The physics terminology to describe the degree of randomness in a system is entropy. But here, I refer to this idea as chaos. Mutations - and evolution - happen because of chaos. This is the second main force in any organization.

Making sense of the noise

What is creativity and why is it related to chaos? Creativity is the ability to present a viable, appealing, unconventional solution to a given problem - whether that problem is to sell a product, produce an interesting music album or optimize a car’s energy consumption. Being creative means being able to perceive patterns in what appears to be only noise. That noise is chaos. It is unpredictable, meaningless and virtually impossible to exploit. And yet, sometimes, individuals or organizations manage to decipher a bit of that chaos, allowing them to apply creative solutions to their problems. For example, noticing a certain pattern of behavior among users of a certain app will allow a company to implement original methods of acquisition or retention. Being able to make sense of the cultural zeitgeist can help a content creator carve a niche on Youtube or Instagram. Creativity happens at the edge of our certainties, where chaos becomes too dense for anyone to make sense of what happens. This chaos can sometimes be harnessed to provoke change.

Breaking Patterns

Chaos increases when processes are destroyed or ignored. Picasso once said

When I was a child, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child

This is what destroying a process means. Picasso was a classically trained painter who demonstrated immense talent from a young age, but he is remembered for his transgressions, for the ways in which he created art free of rules that didn’t interest him. Some individuals act as an agent of chaos inside their organization. They destroy or ignore processes and threads in chaos. Steve Jobs was that kind of force. Apple is a process-heavy company, even relative to its size. It demands extraordinary levels of control from its commercial partners and collaborators. Jobs transcended this process culture with actions like his last-minute redesign of the original iPhone or his legendary elevator firing of an employee. He increased the chaos inside Apple. And from that chaos sometimes emerged greatness.

The inertia-chaos dichotomy can help to get a sense of how organizations work and the prevailing behavior to expect from each of their members. Who maintains inertia, who increases chaos? What departments should rebalance their equilibrium by introducing more rigorous processes versus removing them? Even when considering society at large - like all the inhabitants of a country - this idea of an inertia-chaos continuum makes sense. There are no such things as a purely inert or chaotic person of course. What matters is how can one easily predict the behavior of people around them and understand where lies the path of least resistance. And ultimately, this is what this mental model is about - going with the motion.








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