Leadership Entropy – Effort vs. Progress

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Most of my classes in engineering school were enjoyable. The notable exception was Thermodynamics – “Thermo” for short.

The subject matter was interesting, but I just couldn’t get my head around the math. It took me a long time to get reasonably proficient.

Thermo is summarized in four major “laws,” usually numbered zero through three. Most people have heard of the second law, also known as the “Law of Entropy.”

The general idea behind this law is that – left to themselves – natural processes tend to move from a state of order to a state of disorder.

In common language – left unattended, things will eventually hit the fan.

For leaders, this means that systems, structures, people, relationships and everything else in our world requires the investment of energy, time and attention to stay on track. We need to consistently expend effort to keep things running smoothly.

Effort, in this context, can be labor or complexity.

I think of this as “Leadership Entropy.”

I’ve summarized this in a chart. The idea is to help a leader perform a quick, Pareto-like assessment of a particular project, program, system, etc.

On the y-axis is an Energy (or effort expended) scale, moving from low effort expended on the bottom to high on the top.

The x-axis contains the Progress scale, moving from low progress to high progress.

The chart is then subdivided into quadrants, each representing a different project state.

Let’s start with the easy one – the lower right – if something is progressing well and producing the desired result with a minimum of effort, that output is probably being produced effectively.

Upper right – if you are making great progress but there is high effort consistently being expended to get those results, then there is a good chance that there is inefficiency (or excessive complexity) somewhere in producing that output.

This is normal and to be expected when you are just starting something new. It always takes more work at the beginning to get things rolling. But eventually, the effort required should diminish as you organize or systematize whatever it is that you’re working on.

A good clue here is how people refer to it or approach it – for example, “wow, getting that done every week is like pulling teeth.” Or, “boy, I hate doing that, it’s such a pain.” If there is resistance to producing the output, there is often an underlying problem.

Upper left – if you are expending high effort but your progress is low, then you may have a lack of clarity that needs to be addressed. People may not know exactly what to do or how to do it. Lack of clarity is a much bigger time waster than many leaders realize.

Lower left – this is sort of a worst case scenario. If you have a combination of low progress and low effort, you need to look to the motivation level or the commitment level of the team.

Maybe the effort is unpopular, maybe it is seen as a dead end, maybe it is seen as being unnecessary. There could be a number of possible reasons.

I see this a lot, for example, in larger organizations where an “edict” may come down from corporate that people don’t believe in or don’t want to rally around. It’s hard to drum up enthusiasm when you don’t feel like you have buy in on something.

Think through your own work this week and take a few minutes to identify which things fall in which buckets. Then take action where needed.

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