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Manage Complexity Using a “Continuous Start-Up” Mindset

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pick-up-sticksIf you have a science background, then you’re probably familiar with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Like nearly everything scientific, it’s defined in terms that only those who live in that world understand easily. For laymen, it perhaps can best be understood as the tendency for just about everything to change from order to chaos.

Think about your house, garage, garden shed or workshop. At one time or another, you probably reach a point where you can’t stand it any longer. You take a couple of days off and spend the time sorting out the mess. Your goal is to get things organized. When you’re finished, you feel great about your world and everyone else’s, and then you go back to work when you can concentrate on doing something that’s meaningful.

After a several months or a year, you find that you have to take another couple of days off so that you can clear out the clutter that has accumulated, give the place the old “spring clean,” put it all back together, and then get on with life.

Have you ever wondered why once is never enough? Are you puzzled by the fact that no matter how hard you try, somehow or other, your careful organization seems to unravel? That is the Second Law of Thermodynamics in action. It’s why your desk becomes disorganized, and why your house becomes unmanageable. There are forces at work that you cannot control, and they affect your organization as much as they affect you personally.

There is no solution to this problem. That’s why it’s called a Law. It always happens. It’s something that you will simply have to live with. There is a strategy, however, that you can follow that will minimize its effect. It’s easy to remember because what it’s called and what you do to put it into practice can be summed up in the same few words.

They are Keep It Simple. Simplicity is the key to keeping the chaos from taking over.

A simple mathematical equation will make this easy to understand. (If you can multiply four single-digit numbers, then you have this concept licked!)

A factorial is the name given to the result of multiplying a descending sequence of numbers. We know what the starting number is and all that follow by the insertion of an exclamation point after the highest number.

4! Means 4 x 3 x 2 x 1.

Factorials tell us how many different combinations are possible from any group of numbers. Those numbers could represent product features, employee benefits, garden or automotive tools, or children’s toys. If there are only two of them: 2!, then the number of possible combinations is just two: 2 x 1 = 2. If there are four, the number increases to 24: 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 24.

How many items do you have in your house that you use on a regular base and that also interact with one another? Five? Ten? Twenty?

How many different things come across your desk each day, week, or month? If each has a value of one, then your factorial equation could be 20! Or 50! Maybe more. Rather than fry your calculator trying to figure out how complicated your life is, you can use this Factorial Calculator and “simply” enter the number of things that you deal with. It will tell you just why it’s bananas in your environment all the time. For example, 10! = more than 3.5 million!

What does this have to do with being a continuous start-up? Start-up businesses are far less complicated than those that are going concerns. Fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-while-working-out-of-a-spare-bedroom-or garage businesses are constantly on the lookout for ways to keep it simple. They simply don’t have the time, money, patience, or just about anything else for it to be any other way. If they let all that other stuff come in, their fledging businesses would fold without trace.

Let’s get back to thinking about your organization. How do you keep the Second Law of Thermodynamics from wreaking havoc? It is “simply” by deliberately keeping things as simple as possible from the outset. If your organization is established, then you must do all you can to simplify everything in it. The tendency, however, will not only be for chaos to creep in and eventually take over, but to attract more of it. That means that you’re fighting this on two fronts.

It’s counterintuitive, but you will have to work hard to keep it simple. The rewards of doing so, however, are incalculable. The difference between a factorial of ten and one of five is almost 3.5 million. In other words, by reducing the number of things in your life – your organization – from ten to five, you can almost eliminate the chaos you are experiencing right now; and so you can see that its madness to deliberately make things more complicated than they already are.

The next time you’re tempted to add a new rule or requirement, create another form, or introduce a new level of supervision, remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and ask if it’s truly necessary. Engage every fiber of your being in the war against unnecessary complication. You’ll have to really work at it, because it’s just not as simple as it seems.

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Jesse Jacoby
The Editor of Emergent Journal and founder of Emergent, Jesse is a recognized expert in business transformation. He and his team partner with Fortune 500 and mid-market companies to deliver successful people and change strategies. Jesse is the creator of the Accelerating Change & Transformation (ACT) model and developer of Change Accelerator and Savvy Transition. Contact Jesse at 303-883-5941 or

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