Negentropic: The 2d Law of Thermodynamics and Sustaining Improvement Efforts

ASQ has “graduated” me to the status of a “Voices of Influence Alumni” blogger.  Hopefully my advanced studies in Blogology have helped me, and those reading this blog :-)

Recently, in his monthly “View From the Q,” ASQ Executive Paul Borawski raised a great question about how organizations can sustain their quality and organizational improvement efforts over time.  Paul cited the example of Corning, and you can read his post here:

The issue of sustaining and even growing success over time, points to a unique characteristic of human systems.  In both mechanical and many natural systems, if the system is closed, then over time the system will “wind down” and eventually stop.  Think of a classic grandfather clock, for example.  Unless you keep winding it periodically, the clock will stop.  This principle in science is called ENTROPY, and is known as The Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The tendency of a system, absent any new input of energy, to dissipate and stop over time.

But human dynamic systems like communities and organizations seem to defy the Second Law.  Not only do we keep going in our evolving social endeavors, we tend over time to adapt and evolve to higher levels of complexity and order.  We have NEGATIVE ENTROPY, or in other words, complex human dynamic systems are NEGENTROPIC (and note that this is one time being “negative” is actually POSITIVE!).

How do we do it?  Well… physical systems need to be open, and keep receiving new energy to stay in gear.  Where’s the energy to keep human systems – like improvement initiatives – sustained and “negentropic” over time?  Maybe you have already figured it out…  our COMMUNICATED IDEAS are the “energy” that keeps feeding our systems.  The collision of ideas old and new can spark the innovation that will help us leap to a new level of performance.  Words of encouragement and support can fuel our ongoing motivation and even perseverance in tough times.

The path to sustained excellence and improvement is clear enough, even if it is at times very challenging.  I encourage organizations to follow this four-dimensional approach:


  1. COMMITMENT: This has to be clear to everyone.  If some are committed, but others, through words or actions, give up, your improvement efforts will suffer.
  2. CONNECTIONS: The energy that will sustain your improvement efforts has to be able to flow throughout your organization.  As a change leader, make sure that everyone is connected.  Enable connections without fear.
  3. COMMUNICATION:  Remember, this is the energy that enables growth and sustained success.  If it isn’t coming in positive ways from you, why would it flow from others? Enable both the connections and the communications among your people to be open and without fear.
  4. COURAGE:  It is not always going to be easy to lead and sustain change and improvement.  Noted Harvard Professor of leadership, Ron Heifetz, teaches that “leadership is dangerous.”  Sometimes the idea you send out will not be what some people agree with, or want to do.  Sometimes some people will resist, or even actively work to undermine or sabotage your efforts.  They are adding ideas and energy to the system, just as you are.  But colliding ideas, like other kinds of collision, don’t always end up creating something bigger and better.  In the classic words of the Cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz, “What makes the Hottentot so hot? What’ve they got that I ain’t got? COURAGE!


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The Heat Of the Moment: Sense-Making in the Midst of Crisis

So, a guy I know, tells a story about seeking, and obtaining clarity of vision for our work in change and leadership.  He claims that “things get clear when the house is on fire.”  Yes, I have seen people suddenly forget all about their differences and come together in the midst of a crisis.  But generally, that is not what happens.  

First, and I think foremost, is the notion that “things get clear when the house is on fire.” On this point, I’d have to disagree.  We get a clear signal of danger, and we get a shared sense of urgency.  Those factors do often lead to more rapid collective sense-making and decision-making.  But are we able to do a meaningful analysis in the moment of crisis, and choose a path to survival and success?

Not really.  In a time of crisis, two things happen.  Our ability to perceive and make sense of what’s happening is often significantly narrowed.  Then, the information we are using to make what may literally be life-and-death decisions, is often incomplete, inaccurate, and changing moment-to-moment.

For those unfamiliar with the story, read about the 1949 Mann Gulch forest fire in Montana.  Conditions changed, and past knowledge/experience failed.  The leader, in the very literal “heat of the moment” ordered a counter-intuitive tactic.  But his team refused his direction.  The leader survived.  Two lucky members ran but found a way out.  The rest relied on what they thought they knew- deliberately ignoring their leader- and died.  See especially, the points on pages 5, 7, and 9.

The real enemy of success is complacency.  We stop scanning for emerging disruptive forces.  We stop adapting to changing markets or technologies.  John Kotter teaches leaders to create and sustain a “sense of urgency.” Learn to be mindful and adaptive BEFORE the house burns down, and you’ll have a better chance of survival and success.

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Road to (K)nowhere: Conversation, Change, and the Leader’s Journey

How do we feel when we are in conversation with others about a seemingly important issue or challenge, and the talk seems to lead nowhere, and resolve nothing?

Perhaps you feel the way some popular leadership coach/consultants do, that “real” or “outstanding” leaders won’t tolerate these “butterfly” conversations – ones that seem to flit about without really landing on, or impacting the issue at hand.  You may be one of those folks who get frustrated if all the talk does not lead to clear consensus, decisions, or action.  Maybe you believe that every problem can be addressed and responded to by people if they just say what they mean, and get on with things.

Or maybe you have been fortunate to learn a few other things about conversation, dialogue, and the work of “thinking together.”

Yes, it is true that some conversation, some of the time, does not overtly lead to consensus, decisions, and action aligned with objectives.  Such is the nature of conversation itself.  As you point out, Dan, people say – and don’t say – things for many reasons.  Not all challenges are the same.  When everyone knows the right answer, our conversations can move quickly and easily to consensus and action.  When a great answer is knowable by asking experts, we can still examine the options together and make a choice.

So why doesn’t this happen often and easily? In my experience, it is the two-headed dragon of power and fear.  The things we say in conversation reflect our sense of ourselves in the org; our sense of our relationship to others; and our sense of what to do together.  But we are constantly pushed and pulled by the dynamics of power relating, which typically reflects some set of fear(s).

The work of conversation- even conversation that does not seem to produce a clear outcome and actions – is both hard, and fundamental to really leading change.  Here are three links to great thinkers/teachers/consultants whose work with how we can and do converse, shows us a way forward. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always important:

Patricia Shaw describes her very unique approach to “changing conversations in organizations.” This is the title of her book, and the essence of her approach to both consulting and change leadership.

Here, Chris Rodgers, author of Informal Coalitions, reviews Patricia Shaw’s ideas, and offers a great analysis of how conversation happens in organizations, and how we can think about, and work with it to influence change.

Here is a summary from the great Peter Block, about the “six conversations that matter.” Peter was among the first to recognize that “the conversation IS the work.” If you have ever been with Peter in a workshop, you know he doesn’t believe in report-outs from table group conversations, etc.  We change in the moment of being engaged in conversation.

Enjoy, learn, lead.


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Above & Beyond: My First Visit to Nordstrom’s

Recently I was happily responding to the excellent questions posed by organizer’s of the weekly #custserv tweetchat on customer service.  One of my responses caused another participant to mention something about Nordstrom’s.  I replied (within the 140 character limit of Twitter tweets) that my first visit to a Nordstrom store had been extraordinary.

And so..

At the end of October in 1989 I spent a week in San Francisco.  I was there on critical business for the U.S. Department of Labor.  My task was to persuade the leadership of the DOL’s principal employee union to agree to a unique labor-management partnership initiative proposed by the Department.  We were at a hotel just off Union Square, a bustling center of the city.

Around the corner was a large Nordstrom department store.  At that time we didn’t have Nordstrom stores in new Jersey, where I live.  I had heard about the legendary Nordstrom customer service, and I had also heard about the seemingly impossible spiralling escalators in the store.  So one day at lunch, I walked over to Nordstrom. From the street level, you entered the department that most stores put front and center – perfumes and cosmetics.  I was looking for a shirt to get as a gift for my son, who was then 2 years old.  Like many kids, he liked to play with masks and costumes, pretending to be Batman, or a cowboy.  I approached the perfume counter and asked the woman working there if she could tell me where the boys’ clothing department was.  Her response was not like anything i expected, or had ever encountered in customer service before.  Where I expected “oh… that is on the fifth floor, towards the rear,” what I was told was “I’ll take you there.”

The perfume counter woman was going to TAKE ME to the boys’ clothing department?  She quickly got someone to cover the perfume section, and came around to escort me.  As we walked and rode the escalators, the perfume sales woman asked me a series of questions.  In short order, she knew my name, where I lived, and all about my son and what I came to look for that day. Why is she doing this?  She sells PERFUME, not kids clothing!

It was only a few minutes to the boys’ department.  When we arrived, the perfume sales woman introduced me to the boys’ clothing sales person.  “Jim,” she said, “this is Mr. Waltuck, from New Jersey.  He is visiting us for the first time today, and looking for a  Western-style shirt for his son Miles, who is two.”  I was stunned! NO ONE treated their customers this way!

The woman shook my hand, and left to head back to the perfume counter.  The boys’ department salesman showed me several racks of shorts in my son’s size.  I quickly spotted on that was perfect.  A cool western geometric print, and on sale at a great price.  When we got to the register for me to pay, the salesman handed me his personal business card. “I’m sorry we didn’t have a bigger selection of these shirts for you today.  Call me, and I’ll send you the catalogue from the manufacturer.  We can get you any style.” 

What planet was I on?  Had the spiral escalators taken me to another dimension where incredible service was actually REAL?

As I took the salesman’s card, he gave me the signature “Nordstrom final touch.”  He walked around from the behind the counter, bringing me my bag with the new shirt.  He handed it to me, and offered his handshake to thank me for my purchase.

I left in a daze.  I had read about Nordstrom’s legendary customer service.  This was far more than anything I had ever experienced (before or since, I should add, although the next year, a newly-opened Nordstrom in New Jersey did an equally remarkable job serving my then three-year-old son as he shopped for and got a new pair of shoes), and far more than anything I had expected.

As the tv credit card ads might say, “the value of Nordstrom service in establishing loyal customers: priceless.”

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“Moneyball Government” – Evidence and Trials in the “Court” of the Organization

In the past year, several ideas have dominated the discourse on improving government.  A couple of months ago, the President called for improving the management and results of government.  A recent OMB Memorandum, M-13-17, specifically calls for “evidence based management” and calls for the use of “random trials” to explore and experiment with promising new ideas.


There is much to think about in the advent of so-called “Moneyball government.” Another term for what is purported to be “evidence-based government.” it all SOUNDS sexy and good.  But… The notions of “evidence” in complex domain challenges don’t seem to be as claimed.  In large part because the presumed “evidence” is derived from highly variable interactions leading to significant differences in data.  Running government isn’t like doing a random clinical trial on a new drug.   Government leaders can’t isolate a system to a single variable, or control their sample population characteristics and behaviors. 

Big Data and predictive analytics will no doubt make many firms wealthier, but I must wonder if the so-called evidence-based practices wouldn’t be outperformed by the human sense-making seen in the “practice-based evidence” counter-movement.



For What It’s Worth, I agree with Dave Snowden, the principal of Cognitive Edge.  We think… and hope… that well-trained subject-matter experts, acting as an aligned team of observers and sense-makers, will outperform the “moneyballers.”  Time will tell

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Line ‘em Up & Knock ‘em Down: Leadership & the “Domino Dynamic”

Recently I was reading some stuff about leadership.  The writer was suggesting that leaders should aim at having things so well aligned, so well defined, that every action had the desired and intended consequences.  If only it were that simple! The single biggest leadership mistake I have seen, over and over and over for more than 30 years, is the mistake of treating organizations, their problems, and their people, AS IF they could be lined up like dominoes, and then just putting the first one in motion.


We humans are not dominoes.  While our actions do have consequences, and while we can act with good intentions, the 2d “law” we need to observe is the law of UNINTENDED consequences.  Every mind is different, every person’s sense- and meaning-making is different.  I could think my boss was avoiding me when they ducked into a stairwell, as we approached each other in the office corridor.  Or, they might just be a person who prefers the exercise of stairs, over the elevator (a real case story).

Over time, these small differences get amplified through iterations throughout an organization.  Suddenly, the small undesired consequence becomes a significant leadership challenge.

To lead effectively requires attending both to the consequences we intended, and especially to the impact and outcomes we never intended.  We can’t make our organizations and people all click like dominoes, but we can (and should) act to influence perception and relationship every day.

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From “I think I can…” to “I knew I could…”

Another in a series of comments I have written recently in response to some public discourse on leadership.


I think I can…I think I can…I think I can…

I knew I could…I knew I could…

Insights on motivation are helpful on many levels.  My experience coaching and facilitating hundreds of business improvement teams certainly confirms the value of pairing more capable people with those needing some improvement.

But I don’t see this as being about people holding negative views (“I think I can’t…) somehow getting more motivation than those willing to try.  People need to feel supported, encouraged, and hopeful.  They need to believe in the value to them and others, of the stuff they have to do.  And they need to believe that they can get better/stronger through their efforts.

In the end, I agree with the renowned community improvement leader Angela Blanchard: “you can’t build on broken.” Help your people see what assets and strengths they do have, and help them use those assets to grow in their work and lives.

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Us vs. Them: Leading for the Org, or for the People?

The following is a comment I wrote in response to someone’s notion that in leadership, you might WANT to put “people first,” but that you really have to put the goals of the organization first.


First, there is a difference between “balance” and “harmony.” The objectives of people, and of organization, might not ever be in true balance.  That means equal weight, equal force, and most important, no tension between the two.  It is DIFFERENCE – NOT being in balance – that creates dynamic tension. That tension is what drives creativity, innovation, and adaptive capacity.  Sometimes the “tones” of the people and the org are in harsh dissonance.  Usually reflecting too much difference between the two.  But, sometimes, even as there is difference between the tones of the people and the org, they produce a sweet harmony of productivity AND satisfaction.

Second, is that this is not some “Impossible Dream.” Rare, yes, but, possible.  How many organizations have achieved this harmony of people and organization? One, for sure.  Maybe two or three.  The one for sure, is Brazil’s Semco.  If you have never read Ricardo Semler’s now 20-year-old book “Maverick,” get it right now.  Read it today. He did it.  Other close examples include W. L. Gore, and Patagonia (see Chouinard’s book “Let My People Go Surfing”).

The challenge is to set core values and operating principles that maintain alignment to mission, while sustaining that “just enough, but not too much” level of difference and positive tension between your people and your org.

Nobody ever said it was gonna be easy ;-)

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Drama, Dysfunction, Leadership and Culture: Build the Way Forward, Together

My response to a post on a well-known blog about leadership, dealing with “drama” and the various forms of interpersonal dysfunction in an organization. The writer cites a CEO he knows, who claims he refuses to spend his time trying to resolve disputes. This CEO says he provides training about workplace respect; demands respect from all; and values diversity.

My response is…

Yes… And….

Never forget that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker, I believe). Interpersonal problems may reflect more than the personal issues of one or more employees. Your people interact based on their Identity (who am I?), their Relationships (who are we?), and the flows of work and info among them (what will we do together?). The dynamics of power and fear can amplify negative values and behaviors in the workplace. That can and will hurt productivity and effectiveness.

Ignoring the problem makes you a part of the problem. So tell your people what you expect. Tell them that whatever their differences, they must be able to interact respectfully, and work together effectively. Provide learning and a process to address serious complaints in a neutral and confidential way, such as an ombuds program. Measure the levels of engagement and trust in your workplace, along with your productivity and success. Acknowledge progress and challenges. Remove those who ultimately can not or will not change.

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Turrell, Guggenheim, Wright, and Wrong.

My family and I love the unique art of James Turrell.  When I learned that the Guggenheim museum in Manhattan was participating in a national retrospective of Turrell’s work, and featuring a new site-specific transformational piece, I went online and bought tickets.  I got tickets for both the overall museum exhibition, and for a conversation with the artist.  This was on Friday, June 21st, the solstice.  Here is the story of the visit:

Some ups and downs in the Turrell visit to the Guggenheim.

..on arrival, around 12:45 p.m., staff outside struggled to direct people appropriately for lines and doors. The main entrance to the Guggenheim is a single revolving door, and the space just inside is fairly small. There were several categories of visitors– members, non-members with and without tickets, pre-paid folks needing to pick up their tickets (us).

..we got our tickets quickly once inside. I had purchased tickets for the overall museum/Turrell exhibit, and tickets for the Turrell talk.

..since the talk wasn’t until 2, we went into the atrium to see the main installation, Aten Reign. There were seats around the perimeter, though the best viewing was directly in the center of the space, looking straight up. Although laying down to look up was optimal, that wasn’t allowed (too easy for distracted guests to step on the reclined and hurt them). The installation really is remarkable. As you keep looking, the spatial dimension of it seems to change. It can seem to be a tall space, with the oculus far away. Or, in typical Skyspace fashion, it can seem to be all flat and near. As I twisted my head a bit from side to side, part of the central area seemed to turn convex, appearing to bulge towards me. Quite remarkable.

..we went to get in line for the talk. The entry to the auditorium at the Guggenheim is not accessible from inside the museum proper. We were told it was around the corner. In fact, it wasn’t. It’s down a ramp just at the corner of the building. No signage again (I’m big on signage lol). We got in early, and sat in the third row center. The talk was a conversation between the director from LACMA, and Turrell. It was very casual, touched mainly on how Turrell developed certain insights in his life, and didn’t talk at all about his development of the big piece for the Guggenheim. There were slides, and after a while, the slide was an aerial view of Roden. But there was not a single question or comment about Roden, either from the host, or the audience. Interesting. In this case, my flux-y feeling had come from my own hopes and expectations not being met

.. So we had to go outside and back into the main entrance crowd a second time, to go in for the other parts of the exhibit. There were several Turrell pieces installed, on two different floors. These were all in the so-called Annex galleries, which are to the side of the round main space. We got off the tiny semi-circular elevator (only held about five people) and saw.. A huge line. In fact, the line on this floor went all the way around the entire level of the museum. There were at least 100 people in line to enter the two installations on this floor. Holy Disney! Once again, no explanations, no signs, no guidance on what was happening.

..And, oh… when we had returned to the main entrance, we got a real shocker. Of course we had both sets of tickets, and I showed my main museum stubs to get back in. The guard saw my stubs from the talk, and told us “oh, you can exchange those for tickets to the museum too.” Wtf? We went to the ticket counter (after being stopped by a guard when we wanted to pass from the atrium back to the ticket counter). At the counter, an unsympathetic and condescending young man told us “oh… Well yes, at the last minute they decided to add a perk for those buying the tickets for the talk. You could have just used those to get into the museum too.” So, uhhh…. By being an early purchaser, I got screwed? I paid you for two sets of tickets, when I only needed one? Well, yes, that was it. The guy said the museum had decided there was nothing they could, or would do for folks like me. Well. **** you very much.

..So we went back to the elevator, and squeezed in for the ride to the other floor, where a guest told us there were no lines. That was true. For some reason, the three projected light pieces on this other floor were wide open, and people just flowed through. Two pretty cool pieces with projected white light. One, a classic Turrell, appeared to create a floating solid cube of light against the corner of the gallery. The other, a wide rectangle of light that seemed to be an opening through the solid wall, into… Something Here, a docent was able to explain the line on the other floor. Apparently the installation there could only accommodate 15 people at a time. She said that visitors were supposed to be allowed five minutes to stay inside, but… She then said that “they’re not handling that very well, yet.” The docent said we could come back another day. I explained that I had come a long way to be there now… On the opening day, so we could see Turrell. The odor of indifference was as palpable as the illusory space of the art.

..Susie needed a pit stop. I waited in the gallery as she went off to find the rest room. She was gone quite a while, and when she returned, she reported that each floor of the Guggenheim appeared to have just two unisex bathrooms. Moreover, she said the bathrooms were very small. Semi-circular spaces barely bigger than airplane bathrooms. I needed a break by this time, so we walked over, and I got on the bathroom line. Well… Bigger than an airplane bathroom, but not a lot. And yes, each of these odd little bathrooms was just for one person at a time. We began to wonder about the Wright design of this iconic building.

..We never did go back to the other floor, and we never saw the other two installations. We returned to the atrium to gaze again at the shifting elliptical colors and light of Aten Reign.

..then we took the short walk to the gift shop. There was a lovely coffee table volume on Turrell. Very nice, very comprehensive. I’d have been more inclined to give them the $75 if I hadn’t spent $60 for a pair of tickets I didn’t need. We looked around, but there wasn’t a single other Turrell item that we could find. No postcards, no posters, no keychain photo-viewers as we had from the Turrell installations at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. So we asked at the counter. A nicer young man simply said, “oh… Well they haven’t made them yet. We’ll have postcards and other things later on in the run of the exhibition.” Huh? I pulled my four ticket stubs out of my shirt pocket, and said, “but WE are here TODAY.”

..we quickly caught a cab outside, and rode a mile to a tiny place I’d noted on Yelp. Pastrami Queen barely seats a dozen people. But the food would be worth a long line (there was no one eating in there when we first arrived). Exquisite corned beef and pastrami. Wonderful non-dairy knishes. We had sweet potato. A fabulous find, and an island of actual service and civility after the oddly dissatisfying Guggenheim. A little Kosher joint, run by Latinos, and deserving of the 4 1/2 Yelp stars that brought us there.

..New York itself was fine. Cabs were immediate and effective. Penn Station was bustling but effective and helpful (ahh…signage!). On the train back home, I decided to check for reviews of the Guggenheim. Ahh… Both Yelp and Trip Advisor. Both rated the place 3 1/2 stars. Both had recent visitors who were upset that the museum had failed to tell them how much was closed off for the Turrell construction, without discounting admission prices (I am SHOCKED! Shocked, I tell you!). Earlier visitors commented on the small elevators and bathrooms. One reviewer noted that “there are tons of bathrooms down in the basement level… And no lines.” And no signs to tell the unknowing.

..when I ordered the tickets, the Guggenheim site specifically noted that because of the Turrell works, the museum would be limiting admissions to the museum. That certainly did not seem to be the case on opening day. Like many other Guggenheim reviewers, we felt that there was a clear overall indifference towards the visitors. On this first day of the highly-touted Turrell exhibit, the Guggenheim staff seemed surprised at the crowds, and unprepared for the work of guiding and expediting people through the building. We love Turrell, but having visited LACMA on other occasions, I am betting they are doing a much getter job with the Turrell magic. Maybe it’s the proximity to Disneyland.

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