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InfoQ Homepage News Q&A with Katherine Kirk on Managing Entropy in Uncertain Times

Q&A with Katherine Kirk on Managing Entropy in Uncertain Times

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InfoQ recently published a recording of a talk titled When There’s No Control, What Can You Do To Thrive? by Katherine Kirk, a speaker and leadership consultant who specialises in transformative resilience. The talk was aimed at providing tools for managing the inevitable organisational impact of entropy and complexity. Kirk's talk discussed using situational awareness and analysis to understand and respond to change, touching on tools for adapting to the rapidly changing context of the current pandemic.

Talking at Assurity Consulting’s Bringing the Future Forward COVID-19 fundraiser, Kirk described how entropy manifests itself as "degradation, dysfunction and expiry" impacting individuals, teams, products and relationships. She explained that leaders can "counterbalance" entropy through understanding and responding to situational dynamics at play.

Examples of Degredation, Dysfunction and Expiry

Kirk explained that emotional intensity is "the kryptonite of the intellect," which makes it hard for individuals to objectively counterbalance. She suggested tools for becoming mindful of this intensity, saying that "when the intensity is low then we can have the ability to see context and the choices we have in front of us." Kirk contrasted this with high emotional intensity which she pointed out can prevent us from seeing reality as it is:

"When we have intensity of emotion, it is internalised. Emotion is a lot closer to us than reality; it’s inside us. Then we are a lot more blind and don’t have the ability to see context. And we can’t really understand what choices are available to us."

Kirk explained that leaders can learn to "embrace entropy" by applying the intellect and creative thinking to counterbalance degradation, dysfunction and expiry.


The symptoms of entropy.

InfoQ talked to Katherine Kirk to discuss emotional intensity and applying the intellect to counterbalance entropy.

InfoQ: You talked of entropy as a natural force which affects teams, products and organisations. How has the pandemic and its resulting changes compounded this?

Katherine Kirk: The effect of entropy (and the arrow of time) on teams, products and organisations is that it creates three constant challenges: change, entanglement and imperfect outcomes, which we usually handle pretty well. We can achieve the opposite (control, independence and perfection) for periods of time - and when, inevitably, the challenges arise again, we have processes to effectively respond. However, the pandemic occurring has increased change, intensified entanglement and created imperfect outcomes at such an extreme pace and broad macro level that it has fundamentally affected the way we live, interact and work. This means delivery and business are being challenged to adapt: how do we live, interact and work remotely, for instance? How do we service our clients? Develop business? Are our products relevant now?

InfoQ: What kinds of challenges have you typically had to overcome in helping leaders understand entropy in their own particular contexts?

Kirk: During the pandemic, mostly my help has been needed to bring leaders and their teams out of survival mode and back into effective strategic thinking - specifically to deal with things at the core level of operation: How can we get control in this chaos, deal with a very different kind of entanglement which requires things like social distancing, and overcome imperfect outcomes such as the effect on our products and services? How can we adapt our strategies and focus on the overarching vision?

InfoQ: In your talk, you pointed out that leaders long for a time when they had more control; a time which you point out never existed. How do such delusions set in?

Kirk: We can get control. It just doesn’t last forever. Delusion that we have full control, and will always be able to have control, sets in when we live and work in times which have low levels of manageable change occurring. Things tick over quite predictably so we don’t think change is happening ‘out of our control’. However, that’s not the case; you’re just lucky that the rate of entropy is low - you are living in a time where little is changing. Consider: your face ages slowly over time, so much so that we often get a shock when we see pictures of ourselves 10 years ago. You cannot stop ageing. But you don’t feel it happening in real time. In fact, for years, we can feel like we are in control of our appearance and how young or old we look. But, even if you sit and wish with all your might that your DNA won’t age… it will make no difference to the outcome at all. Your DNA is ageing as we speak, without your permission, and it will continue to do so - you don’t have control of that. It's the same in business and delivery.

InfoQ: How can our readers learn more about the methods you’ve described?

Kirk: I’ve been in hibernation for the last few years, developing and working on case studies with an amazing group of people. There should be a book out soon, created by our little community of practitioners which will help. Stay tuned!

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