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31 May 2013

Devil's Guide to Management #1: The Illusion of Order

First published in "The Chair"
April 30, 2012
This is an excerpt from the unpublished book “A Devil’s Guide to Management” by Rob San Miguel.

Nineteenth century Austrian Physicist Ludvig Boltzmann came up with a mathematical equation to measure disorder or entropy.  The equation is S= k log W.  I will not go into explaining this equation.  If you want, you can do your own research on entropy.  But simply put, entropy is the tendency of things to move from order to disorder as time passes.  The universe started in an orderly fashion starting with the Big Bang.  Ever since that event, everything in the universe is moving towards disorder.  This is one of the fundamental theoretical concepts of physics.

As a manager, the principles of entropy can be a useful set of guide in becoming an effective manager. Most importantly, you can spare yourself from unnecessary stress. How?

Just accept the fact that everything will eventually become disorderly no matter how much order you try to instill. You have no power to stop an undisciplined, unruly and potentially trouble-making employee.   It may be mathematically impossible. It is simple physics. Anything volatile and unstable must explode. And you as a humble manager does not have the super power to stop that explosion (and you should not even waste your energy).  You cannot argue with the laws of physics.

Your job as a manager is to create a situation in which disorder will become easily manageable so that you can prepare for the explosion, and if you can, accurately predict when that explosion will happen so that you can contain it, harness its effects for positive use, or make sure everybody sees the spectacular explosion.  There is no better deterrent to chaos than your employees seeing chaos unfolding before their eyes.  An explosion, figuratively speaking, always makes an ugly mess. No one wants to look ugly.

Imagine that you are building a model tower made from small blocks. Each layer consists of four blocks. The higher the tower becomes, the more unstable it will be unless you fortify it.  This requires extra effort on your part.  You need very strong glue to hold the blocks together.  To ensure even greater stability, you may put steel beams on all four corners of the tower.  If you are willing to do all these fortifications and you are given enough resources, so be it.  However, eventually, the higher the tower gets, the more it will become unstable because of entropy. Thus, you need stronger glue and bigger metal beams.

One way to conserve resources is to make a tower, and leave room for accidents. If the tower collapses because of one block, replace that block with a sturdy one.  Every time the tower falls, you learn new mistakes. You learn when to place the next block so the tower will be more balanced.

Still, eventually, no matter what you do, the tower will collapse because you are creating order and the more order you create, the more it will result in disorder.  That is the natural tendency of things. 

For example, you are managing 50 employees and you want your employees to come to work on time and do their job because that would result in customer satisfaction and more revenues, not just for the company but for all employees as well.  What do you do to guarantee that everyone comes to work on time? Make rules on attendance with appropriate and fair reward and punishment scheme.  People are professional enough to follow simple rules on attendance, right? Wrong!  If you make rules, you make rule breakers.  In my experience, even the most disciplined people in the world sometimes become tardy or they are easily influenced by unprofessional friends.  Regardless of the rules, you have no way of knowing who will violate them or who will not.  Just expect that your rules will be violated.

Once you impose a rule, you start the motion for disorder.  The saying “rules are meant to be broken” is very true and you will always encounter people who are born and proud to break rules. Perhaps they were miseducated in believing that being a rule-breaker is cool. It makes them superior.  History deceptively shows us that people who are successful are rule breakers.  On the contrary, successful people do not break rules; they make new rules or they discover invisible rules of the universe that many of us do not even know exist. They formulate equations. Simply put, real geniuses know that the universe is governed by unfathomable rules that must be discovered.

Petty individuals who do not matter are the ones who are quick to break rules because it takes a strong character to accept the simple logic of rules.  Breaking rules without providing alternative better rules is pure laziness.

So what do you do?  Create the most simple and very logical rules.  The operative word is logical. If your rules are illogical, then you lose the battle before you even start.

Inform your employees that everyone must come to work at 8 A.M. If they are late, they will have to pay a fine.  Set a logical and fair limit.  For example, only five allowable incidents of tardiness are allowed in a month.  If an employee exceeds that number, give him a written warning. Suspend him for a second offense, and fire him for the third offense.  These rules should be written down and disseminated to everyone. In fact, make the rules visible for everyone to see on a daily basis as an added reminder.  Most importantly, apply the rules consistently. No exceptions. Then stand back and watch disorder unfold before your very eyes.  Do not get upset. Disorder is never a personal attack on you; it is simply the law of nature.

Once some of your employees break the rules, you have two options.

The first option: Like putting strong glue and metal beams on the tower, you can be forceful. Get angry.  Be that terrifying devil of a boss so that people will be so terrified to come late for work.  However, this requires so much energy on your part and it may eventually take a toll on your mental and physical health.  Most importantly, it does not always guarantee the desired result. Conserve your energy. Use your time for more fruitful endeavors.

The second option: Like a scientist, record all events. Quantify them. Measure them.  When I was a manager, I always put faith on numbers. Numbers do not have personal agenda.  It gives you a shield of integrity and fairness.  If you can, hire someone who will do all these calculations so that the result will be even more objective.  Remove yourself from the process.  After a month, disseminate the results.  Let everyone know where everyone stands.  Those who are always on time will be thrilled. Those who are perennial violators will not. Anyway, tardiness is hard to be kept a secret.  It is easy to spot a co-worker coming late for work.

Naturally, the volatile individuals, usually the rule breakers, will be the first to react. They will complain or they will start talking behind your back.  They will tell their co-workers how unfair the rules are. If they are very charismatic or you have enough gullible employees, these rule breakers may even be successful in winning people over their side.  Some individuals bring their personal issues at work and they will take their frustrations in life on you. What do you do? Stay quite. Stand by your logical rules. You have already sent the appropriate memos and so there is no need for lengthy explanations. You are hired to manage worker. You are not hired to manage other people’s lives. Their personal issues are their personal issues.  Besides, your rules are simple; it does not require knowledge on quantum physics to understand your rules.

Some perennial rule breakers may feel embarrassed and they will voluntarily change, in some cases, they will resign. I have seen this happen. Other perennial violators will make a conscious effort to break the rules just to piss you off or test you.  Just stand by your rules. Eventually, if a disorderly employee continues to violate the rules, you have enough legal reason to terminate him.  End of story.  You got rid of a potential ticking time bomb. You managed chaos before it becomes fully grown.    Now, that disorderly former employee is somebody else’s problem.

Book Cover
But say, one disorderly employee continues to make trouble and he is able to gather enough support to oppose you. What do you do? Let them band together like dangerous volatile chemicals.  Let them create a chemical reaction that will result in an explosive chain reaction.  As long as your rules are simple, fair and logical, you have nothing to fear.  In my experience, other employees tend to disassociate themselves with unruly and trouble-making groups.  If you are finally confronted, just ask them to come up with new rules that are better than yours.  If they come up with better rules, then good but if they cannot, then do not budge.

After all, is there a better rule than coming to work on time?  Has it been proven that having employees who are regularly late for work will result in higher customer satisfaction and increased revenue?

If you fire an unruly employee after several warnings and he suddenly creates a scene at work, do nothing, let him explode.  Take the higher ground.  This is the spectacle that everyone must see.  All volatile disorderly individuals need an audience, give it to them.  In my experience, these kinds of human explosion always work in favor of the manager.  A huge explosion always creates a huge empty space, and you need that space to hire more creative and productive employees that will be your new eyes in spotting the next potential bomb.

Bottom-line, disorder is a natural part of any group, small or large. As a manager, do not fool yourself in believing that you can impose a lasting order.  As time passes, as your company grows, you will accelerate towards disorder just as the universe accelerates to disorder.  Disorder creates change.  A successful manager does not impose order; he manages disorder; he creates an environment where disorder in its infancy becomes more evident so he can contain it or get rid of it soon. Nothing does that than making the right kinds of rules. Logical and fair rules can withstand any disorder that any rule breaker can create.

One of the first things that a manager should do is to review his rules.  Are they simple, fair and logical?  Your rules should have the characteristic of a physics rule; for example, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."

One of my first big mistakes as a manager was to forcefully impose order.  In time, I learned that it is better to develop an eye for spotting disorder, and managing it, than wasting my time imposing order.  Order is an illusion. Order is a nightmare from which all managers must wake up. You cannot manage something that does not exist. 

Pieces of Advice to New and Young Managers

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