Drift - enterprise entropy and how to reverse it

There's a very good chance that you're doing the wrong job. I don't mean to imply that you're doing a bad job but I do think there's a good chance that you could be performing better if you were in a different role. It's also likely that your team mates are in a similar position and that the team itself is poorly aligned with the goals of the business. Also the business itself is probably not properly aligned with the market.

I can make all these bold predictions because of the existence of something we call Drift.

Drift is enterprise entropy, a naturally occurring phenomenon that causes well designed, orderly systems, to tend towards disorder over time. I'll explain the mechanism and then we can get to thinking about the solution.

Once upon a time

When a person is hired he or she is assumed to align with the role which, in turn, is assumed to align with the business. In reality we know that this isn't actually the case since the hiring process is riddled with ambiguity and uncertainty. We all write CVs to paint a specific picture of ourselves for prospective employers and prospective employers all present roles in the most attractive way in order to get more high quality candidates. It's like dating in a way; not actively dishonest but certainly not the full, unvarnished truth. And the role itself is rarely designed bespoke to deal with a specific challenge but rather to fit into a organisational structure which, as we will see later, is likely to not perfectly align with the reality of the business.

But let's just for a moment imagine that we have something close to perfect alignment between the person, the role, and the business.

The one constant is change

One thing we can all rely on is that nothing and nobody stays the same. From moment to moment we are all in a constant state of change. People grow older, learn new skills, forget old ones, alter their beliefs and attitudes, find that they are more or less motivated by different types of incentive, and undergo major lifestyle shifts such as getting married, having children, falling ill, or losing a close friend or family member.

It would be extraordinary if, whilst undergoing these changes, a person doesn't alter their relationship with their work. This is the first part of Drift.

Whilst on paper the role may appear to stay the same, the truth is that new technology, changes in the team, new bosses, and shifting cultural expectations will cause the role to Drift over time. Sometimes this happens quickly. Sometimes it happens slowly. But it absolutely does happen.

Finally the business itself will undergo changes, similar to the role, but at a higher level. New competitors may enter the market, consumer behaviours may change, legislation, leadership, partners, economic circumstances, and all manner of larger factors will cause the business itself to undergo Drift.

What would you say the chances are that these three Drifts all match up? I'd say the chances of that are as close to zero as to make it a practical impossibility.

This is what we mean when we talk about Enterprise Entropy. No matter how well designed and selected the system is at the moment you set the system running, you can be sure that over time Drift is taking place.

Disconnection

The result of this Drift is obvious: disconnection.

We like to talk about individual greatness, collective brilliance, and organisational flow because these three elements are the building blocks of amazing businesses and amazing lives. But when we feel disconnected none of these things can exist.

When a person is disconnected from their role they can't be great because greatness depends on a true, honest expression of who you are. When disconnected a person feels stress and anxiety as they attempt ever harder to be the person that the role requires or, if the pain becomes too great, they check out and simply go through the motions. Not good for the person and not good for anyone else.

For a team to be brilliant they need to build and bounce, become in the moment as one mind. But a team suffering disconnection can't do that. Since everyone is wearing a mask nobody can feel that they really know one another. At a deep level we feel this and it causes us to enter into a defensive stance. We begin to grasp what we have more closely, sharing less information, seeking more recognition, and becoming controlling of those around us; policing unexpected and unusual behaviour and limiting individual flare.

For an organisation to flow information and clarity are key. When the people, the teams, and the roles become disconnected from the needs of the business everyone is incentivised to reduce the flow of information precisely because it could lead to more change. Change becomes the enemy and the rational person presses back against it with the only tools they have. In this case, the capacity to withhold.

Reversing entropy

Physics fans amongst you might have noticed that I left out an important part of the definition of entropy which is that it takes place within a closed system. If there is a correcting factor nudging things back towards order then we don't see entropy. A great example of this is evolution which shows a system tending towards order. In the context of an organisation this correcting nudge is information.

Unfortunately our organisations are built such that dishonesty is rife. Why? Fear.

Take the person who feels he or she is no longer properly aligned with the role they have been employed to do. Would it be a safe move for that person to inform their boss about such a situation? Of course not. Anyone telling their boss something like that is taking a huge risk with little realistic chance of gaining anything from doing so. Teams, similarly, are designed around individual attainment. Your team mates aren't really team mates. They're competition. It isn't in your best interests to see them do well since it is with them that you must compete for pay rises and promotions. And the business itself may talk a lot about caring for people and being a "family" but the truth is that employees are expendable.

So Drift happens because people can't be honest and people can't be honest because they are afraid.

Removing fear

It follows that the only way to prevent Drift is to create a culture of honesty and the only way to create a culture of honesty is to remove the sources of fear. Do you even know what your employees are afraid of? Really?

I can't tell you the answer for you but I can offer some thoughts as a starting point.

Begin with honest employment. There is no such thing as a permanent job. When you hire someone let them know that you want this to be the place where they can do their best work. Ask them again and again, as time passes, if they still believe this is where they can do their best work and, if they no longer feel that is the case, either work with them to make it so, or work with them to find somewhere else. As an employer make a commitment to ensuring that, when your employee leaves, he or she does so with your support. No matter the circumstances. It took two of you to get into this relationship and the employer is by far the more powerful partner. So stand up and do the right thing when the relationship comes to an end.

Drop individualism and phoney meritocracy. Nobody achieves anything alone. Make this your mantra. No, you are not self made. No, you are not independent. No, you did not come up with this idea or that product in a vacuum. Yes, luck played a major part in your successes and your failures. When you look at your teams, do you see teams? Or do you see individuals? Because if you see the latter then you are missing out on everything collective brilliance has to offer. Stop appraising people on individual achievement - there is no such thing. And end the culture of blame. It's almost never the fault of any one person.

Release your hostages. When your business changes, as it will, be honest about what it means and make it a priority to enable your people to choose, proactively choose, if they wish to be a part of that change. That means offering them the support they need to own their learning and performance journey rather than feeling buffeted by the winds of change. Given the chance to proactively pivot in the direction the business is going in, or find a new path elsewhere, people will stop resisting change and begin to trust in their own ability to survive and thrive come what may.

Control or flow? You can't have both

If you want an organisation that flows full of individuals who are great and teams who are brilliant then you need to let go of the idea of control. Control destroys the flow of information and without the flow of information none of what you want can happen. But, I hear you ask, how do you get what you need without control?

I would humbly suggest you begin by allowing your people to own their future.

We no longer live in a knowledge economy. We are no longer knowledge workers. We are in a learning economy and our value is defined by our ability to learn and perform amidst the ever changing landscape of our work. The scandal is that we have done a woeful job of equipping people with the ability to own their learning and performance. If you asked your staff, right now, what they would do in order to improve their performance by 10% in ten days, what do you think they would tell you? Do you think they would even have an answer? The truth is that most would not.

The fearless workplace

Given this fact, is it any wonder we’re afraid? That we have a culture of learned helplessness and dependency?

But what if we could fix this? Given the ability to adapt, to learn and perform as needed when changes come, people would have no reason to be afraid and you wouldn't need control to get the best out of your employees. Your people would be free to provide you with what you need and do their best work, and if what you need changes they would be free to change too, or move on and allow someone else to give you what you need. This is precisely how you work with your suppliers and customers, so why not your employees?

There is a solution to this challenge. The future belongs to those who find it.