I lost control
Believe and thriving at the edge of chaos
This time I lost control, not in terms of word count, but where I put myself into. I guess that’s what happens when you write while you think, and you let yourself go and end up in some strange places and need to figure out how to close the loop.
Writing while you think is dangerous and probably doesn’t deliver the sharpest, eloquentest prose. But hey, this is a newsletter, not a magazine article. It’s part of the process. It’s also why I write. Thanks for bearing with me.
Today, I pick up where I left off on my last issue on the limits of managing with metrics and explore what it means to make decisions based on beliefs and imperfect information. That leads me to explore the spectrum between “no information” and “perfect information”, chaos and order, and what happens at the edge of chaos, touching on Complexity Theory. And because that was not enough, I summoned the free-energy principle. You can see now where I got myself into. 😬
Innovation and creativity happen at the edge of chaos — just look at Ian Curtis at the edge of losing control.
Jim Morison is also famous for his wild stage performances.
It is not only in music, of course. Across many different art forms, artists were always at the edge, and many crossed the line.
Our day-to-day is full of standards, structures, preconceptions, and expectations — we need them to keep things working and keep us sane. But I would argue that for those brave (or crazy) enough — progress, innovation, and exploration that drives us forward, happen at the edge.
Now, go find your edge!
Last week I wrote about metrics and the limitation of managing by solely looking at them. In the end, I suggested some ways of managing things we can’t measure. One of them deserves a closer look:
Accept the fact that a lot of what we do is based on belief — that doesn’t sound very professional, but you just need to accept that this is already happening today. You need to believe that you’re on an “exponential curve” and things will pick up.
Belief is something we associate with religion and the metaphysical realm. But in fact, it’s a fundamental part of how we stay sane and move forward.
You don’t need to believe if you are sure of something. For those with a scientific background, certainty comes from precise measurements and proofs.
The problem here lies in the measurement part. If, as I have stated before, there are things you can’t measure and others where a metric doesn’t show the total picture, we just can’t be sure. And if we decide to act only when we’re sure we take the risk of becoming paralyzed: either looking for the perfect metric or stuck in some sort of analysis-paralysis like searching for non-existing correlations. (Business and life are complicated. They can’t be explained by simple linear regression. Sorry.)
At the edge of chaos
Like life happens between chaos and total order, we thrive in the interception of absolute certainty and unfounded belief. We live at the edge of chaos.
The edge of chaos is a transition space between order and disorder that is hypothesized to exist within a wide variety of systems. This transition zone is a region of bounded instability that engenders a constant dynamic interplay between order and disorder.
Even though the idea of the edge of chaos is an abstract one, it has many applications in such fields as ecology, business management, psychology, political science, and other domains of the social science. Physicists have shown that adaptation to the edge of chaos occurs in almost all systems with feedback.
At the edge of chaos is where things get interesting and where life thrives. Complexity theory explores this concept, also applied to organizational systems:
Organizational environments can be viewed as complex adaptive systems where coevolution generally occurs near the edge of chaos, and it should maintain a balance between flexibility and stability to avoid organizational failure. As a response to coping with turbulent environments; businesses bring out flexibility, creativity, agility, and innovation near the edge of chaos; provided the organizational structure has sufficient decentralized, non-hierarchical network structures.
Let’s go back to metrics and beliefs.
Order is where metrics, certainty, and deterministic laws live, where everything is predictable and certain to happen.
The universe of things we are certain of, can measure precisely, and know simple causal relations is minimal. It’s predictable and, I would say, boring. We should leverage on it, but we should not expect to go far if we remain within this “order-space”.
Chaos is where unbounded, unfounded beliefs lie — where everything is possible without any pillar to sustain it. Where metrics, theory, experience have no place. Some people call them hallucinations.
The universe of things that look random, incomprehensible, or impossible to parameterize is probably immense. We just can’t comprehend it because it is unbounded.
Somewhere in the middle, at the edge of chaos, lies the interesting zone, where creativity, innovation, generative thinking happens. Based on partial metrics, experienced-based intuition, hypotheses, and bounded by a sense of risk, here is where we thrive. There’s a good dose of belief balanced by a respective amount of facts and metrics. We may call it the zone of Informed Belief.
Another way to put it is by using the concepts explored in the free-energy principle.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the universe tends toward entropy, toward dissolution; but living things fiercely resist it.(…)
How? Friston’s free energy principle says that all life, at every scale of organization—from single cells to the human brain, with its billions of neurons—is driven by the same universal imperative, which can be reduced to a mathematical function. To be alive, he says, is to act in ways that reduce the gulf between your expectations and your sensory inputs. Or, in Fristonian terms, it is to minimize free energy.
Entropy is an expression of the disorder, or randomness of a system, or the lack of information. In the loose terms of this text, we call it chaos.
While the inevitable physics laws send us towards chaos, the free-energy principle holds that a living system can contradict its destiny by minimizing free-energy, or in layman's terms, surprise.
Free energy is the difference between the states you expect to be in and the states your sensors tell you that you are in. Or, to put it another way, when you are minimizing free energy, you are minimizing surprise.
For us, living beings, this means we don’t like surprises, so we need some data and some models of what is happening to plan what might happen and what needs to change. And between sensing and acting, we change the world around us.
If we had perfect information about the world — free-energy = 0 — this would mean game-over, nothing to do, we know everything and everything is under control. Once again, this is a boredom-state.
If we knew nothing about the world, no data, no model — free-energy = ∞ — we would be lost and confused, possibly to fatal state of madness.
Closing the loop
What all of this as to do with metrics and beliefs?
Being pure metric-driven assumes perfect information, perfect order, no novelty — there’s no life here. If you’re alive, you’re not here.
A world where we have no information, everything is random, unpredictable, full of surprises is where life explodes into chaos and entropy. If you’re alive, you’re also not here.
We live and thrive at the edge of chaos, where we seek to minimize surprise by acting even if we rely on imperfect sensors and have an incomplete model of the world.
We admit that our model is flawed, but at least we have one. We are not sure, but we believe in it. Not blindly, because we know we have incomplete information and an imperfect model.
Maybe it is time to stop looking at management and organizations as a simplistic perfectly controllable machine, with inputs, outputs, sensors, and controls. But more like life, that thrives at the edge of chaos.
I’m sure I was not clear enough. Just hit reply or use the comments.
And if I got your attention till now, I might deserve a ❤️
Thanks for reading,