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Process Entropy and Process Evolution

Process Entropy and Process Evolution

If you're waiting for the day your business, system, or process runs itself, you'll be waiting forever. Change happens—what we do with it is what counts.

green tree on sand
Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

I've felt on the verge of a breakthrough several times over the course of my 15 years of self-employment and entrepreneurship. Not a breakthrough in terms of an innovative new product or groundbreaking discovery, an operational breakthrough.

My almost-breakthroughs go something like this: I'm working on a 3 to 5 year plan, wrangling process and strategy into a self-perpetuating system. I'm engineering a stable business model and building predictable workflows. I‘m imagining myself cresting the top of rollercoaster, waiting for the car to be let loose to ride the track powered only by its own momentum.

And then, something breaks. Or maybe it doesn't break, but there is an unexpected result. A system slows down. A process starts to seem inadequate. The market shifts gears. A new idea emerges. An opportunity presents itself. Distractions arise.

In that situation, I think it's hard to stay objective. The imagined future state of "I've made it, and I can relax now" gets ripped away. Even if things are still good, even if the change is good, it can feel like failure. And when things feel like failure, it's easy to make things worse instead of better.

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In today's This is Not Advice, I want to respond to a question that came from down the hall. That is, I want to share a situation that I recently coached my own dear husband,

, through.

We started our podcast production agency, YellowHouse.Media in August 2019.

By the end of that year, we had enough clients to keep Sean busy. When the pandemic hit, I thought for sure we'd lose clients. Instead, they just kept coming. We hired additional team members, borrowed some labor from my company, and made our operations more efficient. We continued to grow in 2021 and 2022. But 2023 was a tough year. We saw more client attrition than we had in the first three years combined.

We're stable, and we're even growing again. But it was a classic case of feeling like we'd just about "made it" and then having that potential ripped away. Or as my old boss used to say, “We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” Sean and I have both been a bit tender about it for the last few months.

Even being immersed in that context…

I was a bit surprised when Sean told me he felt like his procedures were a mess.

Sean is an anarchist—which might lead you to think he's happy to fly by the seat of his pants. But that would be a fundamental misunderstanding of anarchism (and Sean). Instead, he (and anarchism) tends to be very process-oriented. And I knew for a fact how much care and effort he's put into figuring out how to work with our clients. His procedures are, objectively, not a mess.1

So I reminded him of this. But I wanted to get past reassurance and investigate the cause of his distress. It boiled down to this: he has an "ideal" version of his procedures, and then he has the version of those procedures that's either implicitly or explicitly been customized for each client.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it can be a lot to keep track of.

What's more, our client relationships have a long learning curve. Podcast production has a lot of moving parts—managing those moving parts has always been part of our value proposition. We do our best to keep our clients from worrying about those moving parts, but the more aware they are of what’s happening, the better we can work together and the more creative they can be.

That leaves us with a choice to make.

We can either try to teach them the whole process at once, or we can start with a minimum viable process and teach them how we work (as well as learn how they work) over time. The former option is overwhelming. We feel like we’re doing our due diligence, but we just end up confusing our podcast hosts. The latter option means we have to deal with a bit of frustration on our end, but our podcast hosts end up getting to consistent production more quickly.

So, all that said, Sean was feeling some friction. His procedures weren't a mess, but he felt like things weren't going as smoothly as they should be. That should—that mismatch between expectation and reality—is key. His unconscious expectation has been that he'll reach a point when he's solved all the problems, ironed out all the wrinkles, and documented his way to a business that runs itself.

But no process or system actually works that way. Businesses and procedures can only be stable for so long. Everything in this world tends toward disorder. That's the second law of thermodynamics, after all—entropy. Okay, I'll admit to having no more than a pop culture-level understanding of what entropy is.

Mutual learning happens in the entropy; we need the confusion to release the new. This dance exists everywhere in nature. It is the swarm of confusion that becomes the grace of the way things come together.
— Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles

Another way to think of this is what systems theorist Donella Meadows calls “drift to low performance.” A system drifts to low performance when we think things are worse than they are. “As actual performance varies,” explains Meadows, “the best results are dismissed as aberrations, the worst results stay in the memory.” Our perceptions, of course, influence the actions we take and the goals we set. Even our attempts at correction can create new problems and hasten the drift to greater disorder.

The discrepancy between an ideal state for a process or procedure and the actual state of a process or procedure is natural. Under the right circumstances, maintenance and care get everything back on track. The drift to low performance occurs when the discrepancy is between the actual state of a process or procedure and the perceived state of a process or procedure. A discrepancy between reality and the doom and gloom we fear is reality. Between facts and dystopian fiction.

Entropy isn’t a bad thing.

It’s just part of life. But it can certainly be demoralizing.

So perhaps a better metaphor for describing what inevitably happens to procedures as we use them is evolution. What can seem like a breakdown is often just a natural result of an idealized procedure coming into contact with real-world conditions that prompt an adaptation.

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