The Entropy Effect, Everything Tends To Disorder
Last week I was taking Steph on a walk around Hull, exploring the area where Debbie and I started our married life. Our first home was in a fairly deprived area that was being radically upgraded by the council and developers to create a street full of low cost flats and houses. We started out in one of these flats and moved to a new house across the street after about a year. I’ve been back there every few years and each time I visit I see it degrading just a little more. The degradation started with street litter, then moved to the gardens and is now impacting the fabric of some of the houses. Slow incremental decay.
I’ve seen this environmental decay in lots of places and it almost always starts with litter. At first it doesn’t seem like much of a problem, but people adapt to seeing the litter, kids see it and think it’s acceptable so they start dropping more. Bin bags get left outside, they split and the wind blows the litter everywhere, no one bothers to clear it up. People start to adapt to this new state, the subliminal message they see every day tells them that they don’t need to care about their environment. Pretty soon they stop caring about their gardens, about painting their windows, about graffiti, about anti-social behaviour. It’s a slow insidious process of decay. As I walk around the streets and beach back home I always stop to pick up litter, quite a few local residents do too, we have regular beach cleans, our streets are almost litter free. Walking around the streets in Hull, I did the same, but when I got to my old stomping ground I didn’t bother, no point, too much to make an impact. Within 5 minutes I’d given up the habit of a lifetime.
The same process is at work everywhere. I particularly noticed it with my attitude to my own health. Each day I got a little worse, but I adapted to it. The worse I got the less motivated I was to do anything about it, it seemed pointless, too much of a challenge, for too little impact. Then everything changed for me, I discovered Kaizen, a philosophy that emphasised the value of making small changes, in fact the smallest change you can imagine, in the right direction, every day. I started to do this, a few more steps, another portion of vegetables, a few minutes meditation. Gradually I improved, my mind became more disciplined, I was more conscious of bad habits and the difference between my sub-conscious and my own will. My physical health gradually improved, it’s still very variable, but each day I try to nudge it in the right direction. More importantly though my mental health, resilience, discipline, focus, mindfulness have all improved dramatically. Each day I pick up the litter in my mind and body and bin it. I’m reminded of this story:
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
Fresh back from this mini break in Hull with these thoughts bubbling away in the back of my mind I went into work yesterday, for a long series of heated debates. One of the topics that kept rearing it’s head was the slow degradation of complex IT systems. Just like the litter problem, everything decays to disorder unless energy is injected into the system. Little errors creep in, small lapses in discipline pile up, people might not even notice, but even if they do they adapt, and they keep adapting until it’s too late.
The situation on the streets of Hull has got pretty bad, a dysfunctional culture has been allowed to develop. It’s going to take a great deal of energy to fix it. A passionate, resilient, inspirational community organiser will be required and it will take years to turn around, someone who take accountability, hard to find, but it can be done. We need to make sure that we keep/find people like this at work too.
The photo shows what you get to enjoy when you clean the beach. Just imagine this though cluttered with plastic bags, hundreds of plastic bottles, old clothes and so much more. Without the community beach clean that’s what we would have!