Freedom leads to structure

It is not often that you meet someone who has found the theory of everything. As a coach who was doing research into what promotes growth in businesses and individual careers, ours was an unlikely meeting.  He has been attending one honoring ceremony after another to celebrate his work in thermodynamics, the physical forces that shape our very universe. His name is Adrian Bejan and he became the J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor at Duke University because of his work to create what is now called the Constructal Law. As we discussed his new findings which have just been released in the journal Nature, I felt as if I was discovering the biggest of secrets- one which had been under my nose the whole time.

If you look at the design of a tree, lightening, a river basin, the human lung or the architecture of an airport-they all depict a similar shape. Bejan has discovered why this shape exists in all of nature. Everything that we see around us whether it be species, companies or ecosystems all have one hell of a survival story to tell. The way they are designed is as much a symbol of success as it is a guide on how we should grow ourselves.

The Constructal Law says that for a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it. In Laymans terms, Adrian is saying that freedom is good for life.

This may seem like a simple and esoteric statement but the implications for career and business builders are profound. To understand the root of this we should understand the man and how he came across his theory.

Adrian comes from Soviet occupied Romania. He grew up in a culture where people were unable to travel, listen to the radio or express any of the freedoms that we took for granted in the West. At the time, Romania was one of the least innovative countries in Europe. Like many of the strange manifestations of communism, mathematics and basketball were the only two professions that were promoted. Going with the flow, Adrian embraced and excelled at both.

As a basketball player he understood that the ball flows though channels in a live system like any other body or organisation. The offence is trying to open up channels while the defense is attempting to close them down. As a result the channels are not rigid and are constantly morphing. What Bejan noticed is that the better players got the ball more often making certain channels busier and bigger while the other channels that were used less, got smaller. These channels depict the exact same design hierarchy seen in all of nature.

Bejan believes this organisation builds fitter and stronger organisms because it helps to improve flow.  What does it mean though to be a fitter business or career builder in this turbulent landscape and what are the flows that are shaping the economy?

The Deloitte’s Shift Index shows the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company has declined from around 75 years half a century ago to less than 15 years today. The job for life of the baby boomers has been replaced by the expectation that we will change our careers 4-5 times in our lifetime.

To say that things have got a whole lot more competitive and fast moving is an understatement! The combination of people exploring their own unique sense of meaning, coupled with sweeping trends in technology, education and culture make for a whole new set of currents that are flowing through the system. So it begs the question of what stops people and companies from going with the flow?

Consider the most recent billion dollar buy out by Microsoft of Markus Parson’s Minecraft. Being a dedicated gamer he was creating interesting indie games all the time. His bosses were not amused. “We felt that we couldn’t have someone working for us that at the same time was building his own gaming company,” says Lars Markgren, the Midasplayer cofounder who had hired Parson. One can only speculate whether Lars wishes he had let go of this outdated notion and provided greater freedom for Parson, who was clearly demonstrating the capability and desire to follow his own currents of creativity. If Lars had provided not only freedom but also money to Parson in exchange for equity, he could be laughing all the way to the bank.

Clearly employers have to manage the entrepreneurial and vocational aspirations of their employees with a lot more care. Having an idea is one thing, having the freedom to discover one is a different thing. One of the most famous paradigm shifting moves made by a company was 20% time at Google. Employees reportedly were given 20% of their time to work on whatever they liked. According to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and previous Google employee it was more like 120% time where employees were required to do their regular jobs and work the equivalent of an extra day for free to discover innovative ideas.

Why are companies so averse to paying employees to have the freedom to explore whatever they want? In America, 47% of employees refuse to take their holidays for fear that it will count against them. So if employees are not even taking the time to recuperate, you can be sure that proposing a longer period of exploration and creative renewal such as a sabbatical will be even riskier.

It becomes obvious that the behaviors we see on the ground and the lofty words found on corporate innovation manifestos are a contradiction in terms.  Innovation is an evolutionary learning process and what companies don’t fully appreciate is that new experiences are critical for the cross pollination of new ideas. Creating time for experience away from the conditioned routines and thought processes of one’s role is just the beginning. One also needs the space to reflect, conceptualise and to experiment with new approaches to doing things.

As individuals we all contemplate big questions about how best to design our career. The bigger challenge for people according to Bejan, is to understand and appreciate the currents that run through each and every one of us. We all have a unique set of passions, values and abilities which when discovered allow us to add the most value and which naturally influence the design of our career.

Companies that can embrace their employees as actual architects of a living and morphing system rather than fixed bolts in a rigid machine, will adapt far more quickly. As Bejan so aptly put in the poetry of physics, “the person who hears his own calling is better than the one driven from behind”.