Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

The improbability of success

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Anyone who has tidied up after a toddler intuitively understands that making a mess is far easier than creating order. The fundamental reason for this is that the number of messy states in the universe (or a toddler’s room) far outnumbers the ordered ones.  As this point might not be obvious, I’ll demonstrate it via a simple thought experiment involving marbles:

Throw three marbles onto a flat surface.  When the marbles come to rest, you are most likely to end up with a random configuration  as in Figure 1.

Figure 1: A random configuration of 3 marbles

Indeed, you’d be extremely surprised if the three ended up being collinear as in Figure 2.   Note that Figure 2 is just one example of many collinear possibilities, but the point I’m making is that if the marbles are thrown randomly, they are more likely to end up in a random state than a lined-up one.

Figure 2: an unlikely (ordered) configuration

This raises a couple of questions:

Question: On what basis can one claim that the collinear configuration is tidier or more ordered than the non-collinear one?

Naive answer:  It looks more ordered. Yes, tidiness is in the eye of the beholder so it is necessarily subjective. However, I’ll wager that if one took a poll, an overwhelming number of people would say that the configuration in Figure 2 is more ordered than the one in Figure 1.

More sophisticated answer : The “state” of collinear marbles can be described using 2 parameters, the slope and intercept of the straight line that three marbles lie on (in any coordinate system) whereas the description of the nonlinear state requires 3 parameters. The first state is tidier because it requires fewer parameters.  Another way to think about is that the line can be described by two marbles; the third one is redundant as far as the description of the state is concerned.

Question: Why is a tidier configuration less likely than a messy one?

Answer:  May be you see this intuitively and need no proof, but here’s one just in case. Imagine rolling the three marbles one after the other. The first two, regardless of where they end up, will necessarily lie along a line (two points lie on the straight line joining them). Now, I think it is easy to see that if we throw the third marble randomly, it is highly unlikely end up on that line. Indeed, for the third marble to end up exactly on the same straight line requires a coincidence of near cosmic proportions.

I know, I know, this is not a proof, but I trust it makes the point.

Now, although it is near impossible to get to a collinear end state via random throws, it is possible to approximate it by changing the way we throw the marbles. Here’s how:

  1. Throw the marbles consecutively rather than in one go.
  2. When throwing the third marble, adjust its initial speed and direction in a way that takes into account the positions of the two marbles that are already on the surface. Remember these two already define a straight line.

The third throw is no longer random because it is designed to maximise the chance that the last marble will get as close as possible to the straight line defined by the first two. Done right, you’ll end up with something closer to the configuration in Figure 3 rather than the one in Figure 2.

Figure 3: an “approximately ordered” state

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with success. I’ll make the connection via an example that will be familiar to many readers of this blog: an organisation’s strategy. However, as I will reiterate later, the arguments I present are very general and can be applied to just about any initiative or situation.

Typically, a strategy sets out goals for an organisation and a plan to achieve them in a specified timeframe. The goals define a number of desirable outcomes, or states which, by design, are constrained to belong to a (very) small subset of all possible states the organisation can end up in.  In direct analogy with the simple model discussed above it is clear that, left to its own devices, the organisation is more likely to end up in one of the much overwhelmingly larger number of “failed states” than one of the successful ones.  Notwithstanding the popular quote about there being many roads to success, in reality there are a great many more roads to failure.

Of course, that’s precisely why organisations are never “left to their own devices.” Indeed, a strategic plan specifies actions that are intended to make a successful state more likely than an unsuccessful one. However, no plan can guarantee success; it can, at best, make it more likely. As in the marble game, success is ultimately a matter of chance, even when we take actions to make it more likely.

If we accept this, the key question becomes: how can one design a strategy that improves the odds of success?  The marble analogy suggests a way to do this is to:

  1. Define success in terms of an end state that is a natural extension of your current state.
  2. Devise a plan to (approximately) achieve that end state. Such a plan will necessarily build on the current state rather than change it wholesale. Successful change is an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary one.

My contention is that these points are often ignored by management strategists. More often than not, they will define an end state based on a textbook idealisation, consulting model or (horror!) best practice. The marble analogy shows why copying others is unlikely to succeed.

Figure 4 shows a variant of the marble game in which we have two sets of marbles (or organisations!), one blue, as before, and the other red.

Figure 4: Two distinct configurations of marbles (or organisations)

Now, it is considerably harder to align an additional marble with both sets of marbles than the blue one alone. Here’s why…

To align with both sets, the new marble has to end up close to the point that lies at the intersection of the blue and red lines in Figure 5. In contrast, to align with the blue set alone, all that’s needed is for it to get close to any point on the blue line.


Figure 5: Why copying others is not a good idea (see text for explanation)

Finally, on a broader note, it should be clear that the arguments made above go beyond organisational strategies. They apply to pretty much any planned action, whether at work or in one’s personal life.

So, to sum up: when developing an organisational (or personal) strategy, the first step is to understand where you are and then identify the minimal actions you need to take in order to get to an “improved” state that is consistent with  your current one. Yes, this is akin to the incremental and evolutionary approach that Agilistas and Leaners have been banging on about for years. However, their prescriptions focus on specific areas: software development and process improvement.  My point is that the basic principles are way broader because they are a direct consequence of a fundamental fact regarding the relative likelihood of order and disorder in a toddler’s room, an organisation, or even the universe at large.

Written by K

April 4, 2017 at 9:16 pm

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