Saturday, July 30, 2022

The 2nd Law ....

Did you heat a cup of coffee in the office microwave, and then walk away and leave it there?
Sometimes you just forget.
And when you returned to get the cup, what did you find?
Crap! The coffee is cool again. In fact, the average temperature of all the elements in the microwave are about the same: the coffee, cup, and surrounding air. Whereas after first heating, the averages were quite distinctively different; the coffee was hot; the air was not so much. But after a bit, all discriminating differences are lost. 

Said another way: Over time, and in isolation, "waste" increased, where, in this case, "waste" is the heat (energy) that was usefully in the coffee, but is now wastefully distributed throughout the microwave. The former distinctly organized sources of energy have become homogenous, bland, without contrast and shades of complexion. In effect: disorganized and wasteful; almost without value.

What's happened?
Physics took over.
Yes but ..... Actually statistics is the underlying explanation for the increase in waste, and that idea will take us to project management (which constantly opposes waste)

So read on; I'll get to project management shortly. 

So, what do we make of this?
At the outset, there was order, structure, and organization to the energy in the container. 
But over time, this orderly organization disappeared.

Inexorably, over time, and in isolation (that is: no outside influences or help), "disorder" (as opposite of "order") always increases until some equilibrium is reached. Distinctive differences degrade, becoming homogeneous.

And, by the way, value is lost .... The utility of the disordered is usually less than the ordered. Keep that in mind, project people!

Don't forget the living:
And this phenomenon applies to biological sources also: Without some stimulus from time to time, when in isolation, biological systems all tend toward a low-energy minimum maintenance state.

Statistical formulation
I mentioned statistics.
Hardly was the ink dry on the thermodynamics explanation of the cooling coffee than others grasped the idea that there's a statistical explanation as well: 
The probability of a well ordered configuration is hugely less than a disordered one. Even for the coffee cup situation, there are very few ordered configurations; there are effectively infinite disordered configurations for the distribution of energy. 
Disorder is the more likely end-state.
Generally speaking, given isolation, the probability that disorder increases and order decreases is very high. 
And never the other way around!

The 2nd Law:
All of the above is a layman's explanation of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (*), originally conceived as a law of physics to explain the distribution (and redistribution) of energetic molecules in a container. 

But given that there are many more useful concepts that arise from the statistics of disorder, perhaps the 2nd Law should be the Disorder Law.(**)
Maximize throughput ... project objective 
Another interesting tidbit, arising from the statistical interpretation, is that it is improbable for a system to be completely disordered or completely ordered. 
The 2nd Law predicts that statistically -- as things are approached asymptotically -- there will always be something missing; something lost; something wasted. 

Minimizing waste and lost value, and maximizing throughput thus becomes an exercise in working with the 2nd Law.

Isolated projects
You probably saw this bit coming: 
Projects that are highly isolated by security protocols, or physical remoteness, or by uninterest and lack of attention are vulnerable to the inevitability of  the 2nd Law. 

If external stimulus, energy, and interest are cut off, then the 2nd Law predicts blandness; lack of innovation, productivity, and morale; an increase of waste; and a general race to the bottom where a minimum effort is maintained. 
And, by the way, who among us have not seen such in the corners of large bureaucracies, oversized project offices, and similar locations? We're likely to say: Does anyone care?
Counter measures:
The only avoidance tactic for this decay into mediocrity and blandness is to selectively apply new energy from the outside. 
  • In project terms, this means re-energizing individuals, individually. (Giving everybody a new T-shirt or coffee cup won't restore individual leadership, energy, and innovativeness). 
  • This means aggressively combating wastefulness, non-value add activity, and a general acceptance of 'shit happens'
  • This means allocating time and space, away from the project, for recharging.
  • This means that selective (and genuine) attention to the project by outsiders is mandatory.
  • And, this may require rotation to an outside activity to spark new behaviors.
  • Not least: mitigating some physical remoteness and isolation.

(*) There is a First Law: Energy is never destroyed; it may change form, but in total it is conserved. This is a handy bit of information, but for PM purposes the way in which energy distributes itself is where the action is; and that is the domain of the 2nd Law.

"Entropy" is the word physicists use for "disorder"
And, there is a Third Law: The 3rd Law says that there is actually a limit to how disorderly things can become. That's actually good news for PM! But this limit is so remote that it's of no practical consequence in projects, unless you are trying to squeeze the last bit from an information channel. 

(**) There is more about this topic as it affects human situations in Steve Pinker's book, "Enlightenment Now". Pinker uses the term "Law of Entropy" instead of 2nd Law

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