PM Articles > Geof Lory > Teams and Thermodynamics

Teams and Thermodynamics

by Geof Lory

Last year we pulled together a team of about 12-15 people, none of whom had worked together before. We had a mix of contractors and full-time employees from different departments, with varying business and technical skills, located in four different cities across the country. Our team was challenged with tackling a complex problem that had plagued the organization for at least five years. In just seven months we were able to complete a large portion of our goals. Then the New Year brought a drought in funding and the project was halted. Fortunately, our agile approach allowed us to deliver incremental real usable business value that was a huge return on the investment, and the team felt great about our success, albeit frustrated by the inability to continue.

As disappointing as this was, it is the reality of business and projects in today's economic environment. Teams form, storm, norm, perform and adjourn only to reform and start all over and deliver again. But what may not get the air time or credit that it deserves is how much energy it takes to create good teams quickly and sustain their performance at a high level.

All this forming and disbanding and reforming of teams got me thinking about the art and the science of creating high-performing teams, which naturally led me to thermodynamics. I'm guessing that's not the first thing that popped into your mind. Let me try to explain.

If a team is a physical entity, largely comprised of energy, then the team must adhere to the laws of physics. Two fundamental laws of physics are the first and second laws of thermo¬dynamics. The principles may be more analogous than exact, but the analogy is worth the exploration. So if you will indulge me, let's explore.

First of all, we need to define energy. Energy is the capacity to do work. In this definition, work is a force that moves something a measurable distance. Work = force times distance (W = fd). Let's say you hit a golf ball. Hitting a golf ball is work. You apply a force to the ball and it travels a distance. In a moment, gravity, another force, takes over and pulls the ball to the earth, another distance. Work = force (your swing) X distance (how far the ball travels). So energy is the capacity to apply a force to something and move it a distance. It is no stretch to think of teams as energy. This takes us to the first law of thermodynamics:

Energy can never be created or destroyed, only transformed.

This means that there is only so much energy in the universe. You can't create more and you cannot, under any circumstances, destroy what is there. The energy can change from one form to another, say from solid to gas, but the total amount of energy never, ever changes. Another way of stating the first law is that there is a conservation of energy in the universe. Energy, or the capacity to do work (which is a force moving something a distance), is not created or destroyed, it is conserved.

A team has energy and does work. As such, it should adhere to the first law of thermodynamics. This brings us to the second law of thermodynamics:

In a closed system, entropy will always increase over time.

Entropy is often incorrectly equated with chaos. Entropy is not chaos, although chaos is often the result of entropy. Entropy, quite literally, is waste heat. Heat is a form of energy, so waste heat is energy that is emitted into the universe, never again to be used in the closed system that emitted it. A closed system is a system that can operate in and of itself, without any outside energy source. For the most part, it does not need to exchange energy with anything outside of itself to function. In a closed system, entropy, or waste heat, always increases over time.

To be fair, a team is not exactly a tightly closed system. But it is a system comprised of energy on which force can act. For our discussion here, while not perfectly closed, a team is a system of interacting people and things that interacts within itself. Good enough for our analogy.

So teams produce waste heat energy (entropy) in the process of doing work, and in a closed system like a team, entropy always increases over time. Always. We fight the second law every day by remaining alive. No matter what we do, we tend toward disorder as we grow older and older. Likewise, teams will tend to slide from order to disorder -- because of the second law of thermodynamics.

Now let's continue the analogy of teams, energy and the second law of thermodynamics. If energy is the capacity to do work, and work is a force applied to something moving it a distance, what is the thing that our closed system is moving toward? In this closed system, the team, what is moving? What work is being done? The empirical measurements of the team's work are the project deliverables, the business value. That's what we're moving. That's what we put all of our energy into on teams. We create what the team is about and put all of our energy toward moving the team forward to that goal, advancing the organization forward.

Good teams speak and act in ways that provide energy to what the team is about, in order to move the team forward. As project managers, our biggest goal in our quest to move a team forward is to reduce entropy. We battle against the second law, attempting to reduce wasted energy. We strive to have all our processes, rules, tools, documents, and the environment support what the team is about, and nothing else. Anything other than that is wasted energy. We work to battle the second law, in order to minimize wasted energy and maximize team productivity.

Maybe you have witnessed a team that starts out well enough -- everything seems aligned -- and then fails to go anywhere or keeps revisiting the same challenges over and over again. You can feel the energy drain. Every unproductive interaction or valueless document is waste heat going out to the environment with little purpose, accelerating the entropy of your team. The second law of thermodynamics doesn't care. It will take wasted energy from your team whenever it can. When we say we "lost the energy of the team" we really did, and it ain't never coming back.

On teams, drama is wasted energy. Miscommunication is wasted energy. Interpersonal friction, rework, onerous processes, and meaningless documentation -- all wasted energy. This wasted energy will disperse into the organization over time, draining the team of its capacity for work. So, we must do all we can to minimize the loss of energy by getting in front of these energy leeches. Reducing this energy loss conserves energy for the team.

As project managers, we can also tap the potential energy of the team, transforming latent energy into usable energy and increasing the capacity of the team to do work. Thermodynamics means the dynamics of heat, or what happens whenever heat energy is exchanged. Teams are full of all dif¬ferent kinds of energy exchanges, and anytime there is an energy exchange in this universe, the laws of thermodynamics are lurking in the shadows.

Many of the principles and practices of both Agile and Lean are designed to conserve and release energy by minimizing waste and maximizing human potential. I'll pursue this more in the next article on Maximizing Energy -- Minimizing Work.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Very True! Love the association to Thermodynamics.

I think, with a team, you can create energy by infusing the team with enthusiasm, comradery, shared goals, encouragement, appreciation, "touch". That energy is Creativity, the "art" of life... and it is boundless. It is not measured in capacity and accomplishment. It is the secret sauce that makes the impossible, possible. Waste heat comes from disengagement, disenfranchisement, boredom. Human elements, not science, not physics, not thermodynamics explain and influence what a team will accomplish.

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