Stabilizing Systems

Engineers make the darndest assumptions. I made one such assumption in “Change and Stable Systems”. The unstated assumption involved starting with a stable system. But what do you do if your system (as in team, project, company) is unstable?

Stable by Existence

It was a fair assumption. After all, the topic was “Change and Stable Systems.” Unstable systems don’t exist very long. Like fire flies on June nights, they flash briefly, then go black.

First Things First

If the system is unstable, the first change to make is get stable. Being unstable violates the Law of Continued Existence. You have three intervention points to create stability: gain, energy, and degrees of freedom.

Gain

Technically system output divided by input. The higher the gain, the more the input gets amplified. A common example is putting a microphone in front of a speaker connected to the microphone, and turning up the volume. In organizations this tends to be the “rumor mill”. Information, real or imagined enters the rumor mill and gets amplified and re-transmitted. This makes it difficult to tell fact from fiction. To adjust the gain have meetings where you can learn what fictions are circulating. Then share the facts as simply as possible.

Energy

Energy comes in two forms:

  • Potential energy – the ability to get work done.
  • Kinetic energy – doing the work.

If the system is unstable, try changing the energy balance. Is everyone running around in panic mode? Slow things down and convert some kinetic energy to potential energy. The opposite situation, too little kinetic energy creates sluggish responses (if any), and prevents change from occurring.

Degrees of Freedom

Degrees of Freedom means flexibility of action. Normally we want this. However if we’re dealing with an unstable system, too much freedom creates a “loose cannon on a rolling deck”, and the ship we sink might be our own. Reigning the troops in won’t be popular, but it will reduce the number of ways to go wrong. It will also change the system gain and energy.

The Only Hard and Fast Rule

Unfortunately is, “There are no other hard and fast rules.” I can’t tell you which parameter to work with. But by manipulating gain, energy, and degrees of freedom, you can restore stability to your team, project, or organization.

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