Posts Order, chaos, and documents
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Order, chaos, and documents

I’m currently 2 rules deep in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I genuinely don’t know if the rest of the book continues in a similar vein, however what’s clear already is his emphasis on ancient philosophy. Early on in the book, Jordan turns the light on the yin and yang symbol and describes how it encapsulates dualism and parallelism. In brief, for all of the order in the world, there is also chaos, and this battle is ever present. When order is excessive, we might expect chaos to manifest. When chaos is rampant, order brings peace.

It’s simple yet effective else I guess we wouldn’t know about it a couple of millenia after its inception.

There’s two ways to think about the symbol:

  1. The two halves of the symbol representing the dualism of order and chaos at an equal level with each force beside each other
  2. The dots, or eyes, within each half of the symbol showing that both chaos and order can manifest within each other

Apply this to your organisation. Innovation is just the same battle played out in a structured environment (which of course is an example of order itself). Chaos is your problem space where you can identify patterns, make rules, and generate a solution that creates order. Then you can go to market and sell it to other people who have a footprint in that same problem space. But eventually chaos will once again manifest itself inside or adjacent to the order you’ve created again giving you a whole new set of problems to solve - (Murphy’s Law - a reference inspired by rewatching Interstellar this weekend).

Most business plans therefore distil to something like this:

  1. Take some chaos in the problem space
  2. Create the order needed to mediate that chaos
  3. ?????
  4. PROFIT

Rinse and repeat.

This is nothing new really. We all know phrases like “necessity is the mother of invention”, right? There’s a problem with an unmet need and we will ultimately find a solution or invention. Normally we conceptualise this as adding a layer of order in over to mediate the issue.

But important to note is the second interpretation of the symbol above - chaos will manifest within the order you create in a self-generating way. So another way of eradicating this chaos is to remove the order within which it has manifested provided that you can still achieve your initial objectives. Just make sure your strategy is solid and clear.

Example, this time from a particular soap box moment of mine from one of my old jobs…

Back in the day we humans needed a way of transferring information from one person to another that could not readily be stored in memory and communicated easily - so we invented writing. It’s turned out to be pretty useful. Some time in the last couple of hundred years we standardised around some common formats which generally we haven’t needed to challenge. White paper. A4 size. Black print. Maybe even a specific font size and family if you’re so inclined. All hail the document.

Then, just like they said in Tomorrow’s World, some smart cookies built computers and networks that allowed us to create, store, and digitise information in cyberspace - cue some Dr Who theme tune style music. We slowly moved to using computers full time but still, this archetypal document continued to exist. It was pretty useful for sending information over boundaries to external parties because it was a readily understandable format - it allows me to put in some standard prose around some specific information so recipients understand what I’m trying to communicate.

But inside companies the document was becoming less and less relevant. What was the benefit of having all that standard flare in a document when we all knew what the context was? But still our processes remained that we accumulate data from a source, embed it into a document (all hail), and send it to another internal recipient. Even though the only thing actually valuable to the business is that specific data you’ve just buried.

Specific to my situation:

  • I was tasked with collecting customer information, embedding it in a standardised document from which a team could build out a particular requirement.
  • Once a document was created, the process was to save the document to shared drive and ping a link to the build team for them to access it
  • The recipient knew the context so they opened up the document, skipped the filler, copied out the info they wanted, and closed the document.
  • Then, and this is the beautiful part, that information was then stored again in another document on the same shared drive.
  • And, I kid you not, for some jobs the document had only two unique pieces of information: a site ID (simple integer) and a site name (short text field).

So, to complete a job I needed to transfer two small pieces of information to another internal user and save it to an internal resource for reference.

That current process was: open Word template, scroll to pages 7, 9, and 10 copy-pasting the same small piece of information, saving the document down, uploading it to an internal share, copy link to share and send to colleague, they open it up, copy the info into another Word template, save it down, upload it to the same internal share in a different directory.

This was recognised as, y’know, a little bit of a heavy process and a question was floated - could we make it more efficient? However, the trouble is we have a bit of a love affair with adding more “order” and one of the floated solutions was “can we automate the creation and saving of these documents on the internal share?” - all the while IT were doing a good job on keeping hard drive manufacturers in business just trying to support the sheer volume of data being created. Dig a little deeper and you can find a host of other inefficiencies created by storing information in this format.

The two options are:

  • Create order - whilst automating things is a viable solution its only fixing a problem in a very specific, finite problem space (e.g. improving the speed at which we operate based on the current processes). We could also lean on other IT tooling such as better data storage with deduplication, or better indexing for searching information embedded in documents.
  • Destroy order - the chaos we’re experiencing exists because of the order we’ve created. What if we could fix this by removing order? Our problem statement at a wider level is “how do we effectively transfer and store information?”. Provided we can facilitate this, then all the processes we’ve implemented could be made redundant.

The real innovation here is therefore to eschew the much celebrated document (all hail?), strip back the layers of rules/order and just get to the point of transfer and store of information. It actually involves a much simpler technological solution (e.g. a database vs documents, emails, storage with a stack of processes). Instead this is mostly an education and strategy exercise.

This echoes the lessons from The Innovator’s Dilemma of sustaining vs disruptive innovation.

It’s simple on paper but in organisations it can get tricky. Each step in the lengthy process above is a macro solution which was probably lovingly created by someone who may still be kicking around in the organisation - ego is on the line, but so is the organisation’s success. In a situation like this a strong strategy can help staff understand the justification for killing Greg’s spreadsheet after the years of effort he’s poured into it. Sorry, Greg.

In summary, do not fall into the trap of adding more layers of order on top of issues. Take a wide angle. Have you defined the problem correctly? Be brave. Recite the strategy. Chart a course and challenge the status quo.

And why the hell do we still use documents internally?

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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