2008-05-26

Reorganization, Part 1: Stagnation

There's something percolating in my noodle about teams, projects and what it takes to close a project.

It's not fully formed yet, but here's two kernels of it:
1) Physical work arrangements
2) Inevitable drops in focus & energy

The modern cubicle arrangement kills productivity without preserving much privacy or personal space. Couple that with the second law of thermodynamics (see "entropy"), and it's not surprising that projects (or any activity, for that matter) grind to a halt.

Several interesting "asides" live in the thermodynamics comparisons. Think of your workplace in the context of friction, potential and equilibrium. Someone smarter than me has probably connected those dots more eloquently than I could (or will below).

Entropy is a measure of a system's inability to do work. The entropy of a closed system not currently at equilibrium will increase over time until it reaches a maximum value at equilibrium (that's why perpetual motion machines fail).

Nature repeats it's rules over and over, even in structures we don't anticipate (like human organizations). Think through it, and see if you agree. You might imagine exceptions. Given the human nature of organizations, and the myriad of outside variables, they're certainly valid exceptions.

Even the best organization coasts downhill on the slow road to entropy. The catch is that the second law only applies to a closed system. Few of us work in static teams with no turnover, so we're always opening a door to the system (at least by a small crack). Recognizing the slow flow to entropy, though, is important for keeping an organization vibrant.

John Boyd wrote "Suppress tendency to build‑up explicit internal arrangements that hinder interaction with external world" in his brief "Organic Design for Command and Control." That's a fast-track to organizational entropy. Most teams have a habit of closing the door to the outside, but quick. It's a very human thing to see the world in the "us" and "them" picture.

Boyd's comment is easily seen in both a micro and macro context. It could be the little relationships inside or between teams in a sub-group of an organization (like a department). Or, it could be the organization's unwillingness to face it's slowly-advancing role in the marketplace.

So, I kinda left point #1 dangling for several paragraphs, and I want to come back to it.

When we close projects, we move key team members (who share a departmental but not necessarily a managerial organizational position) into the same room. It might be for a few hours to get everyone on the same page. It might be for weeks to maintain our focus.

These ad-hoc organizations within an organization break (at least partially) the second law by un-closing a system. They can't become the de facto organization without the entropy clock beginning it's slow countdown all over again, so it's a Good Thing that they are temporary.

If all organizations will drift to maximize entropy at a point of equilibrium, one of the best ways for work to get done is to break out into these ad-hoc teams.

Most organizations are situated poorly to take advantage of that. We have large cube farms and few (if any) offices or meeting spaces that can be reserved for these ad-hoc teams. Yet that's critical to getting the work done.

Add to that the dubious quality of cube privacy and personal space. I'm just disconnected enough from the organization to reduce my efficiency, but it's not private enough to have an actual, private conversation about a personal matter. And it's not really a place to which I can escape for an hour or day of personal focus.

Again, I don't have a fully-formed proposal here. I'm working to one, and I'll share the details.

Suffice to say that I'd like to see:
A) More semi-private "ad-hoc team" spaces where 4-14 people can comfortably segregate themselves to overcome entropy
B) Actual "private" space to which individuals can escape for an hour or a day (developers, for example, may need to spend days or weeks at a time in this space)
C) An open workspace for the rest of the area. Keep the cubes if you want, but they seem like a waste


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