Thermodynamics, Emotion, and Organizational Batteries

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Stress = Stored motion = Emotional battery

-From my notes on the first Thermodynamics of Emotion conference

In my first post on the Thermodynamics of Emotion conference I made the case that the rich and diverse combination of ideas that I encountered at this conference led to some useful and interesting insights. I’d like to share one such insight that I gleaned from the conversation, and perhaps some clue to the strange place that I found it.

The first day had begun with a wonderful presentation by Professor Adrian Bejan on his Constructal law. The foundation for many of his insights had come from his own life-long study of thermodynamics, or as I understood it, the study of the flow of heat through materials. Now I’m no physicist, but I’m quite familiar with the concepts of flow as they apply to lean organizations. I know a little bit about queueing theory and perhaps a thing or two about the application of flow based processes like Kanban. So, Adrian’s descriptions of flow as found in nature, while not the same, held a certain familiarity for me.

On the second day, there was a presentation by Kevin Behan, a highly respected, if somewhat controversial figure in dog training. Again, he was another marvelous teacher. He has a theory, called the Immediate Moment theory, that articulates a model for the flow of emotions between individuals. In his particular case, he is talking about dogs, but it’s not a huge leap to apply his ideas to people (at least not for me, but I’ve always loved dogs). He spoke about emotion as something that could be transmitted between and stored within individuals, “Like a battery.” He gave an example where dominant dogs would “flip their polarity” in order to engage more submissive dogs in play. The interesting thing was that his models were using the language of physics to describe how emotions worked. This is an interesting attribute of people exploring new concepts – they seem to borrow language heavily from other more well established theoretical domains.  One could not help but begin to draw parallels with the language used by Professor Bejan to describe thermodynamics on the first day.

I think it’s important for me to point out that at this point I didn’t have a eureka moment. In fact, if I’m honest, I was feeling quite skeptical toward many of the ideas I had heard. I had read both of their books on their respective subjects, and my more academic, establishment-minded, critical side had found some potential flaws and critiques of both of their theories. I was actually feeling quite conflicted. I was hearing interesting new ideas that I was having a hard time accepting. There was a very real part of me that wanted to dismiss these notions as the ravings of charlatans. I’m afraid I was a bit subdued after that second day. I had absorbed a lot, but what did it mean? Good Lord. What had I gotten myself into?

It was later that evening, over dinner with a friend, that some things began to come together for me. I was struggling to make sense of these ideas, and looking to see how they might apply to my work as a consultant. I know work flows through organizations. I also know that work can get blocked or backed up due to obstructions or impediments. In fact, some iteration based processes like Scrum and SAFe will create backlogs of work that are stored for processing on a sprint or quarterly basis. Therefore, if the work is temporarily stored up or blocked, even for a short while, does this create emotional stress or tension for people in an organization? You bet it does. This question blends the ideas I had heard from Immediate Moment theory with thermodynamics and organizational flow.

This is by no means a rigorous theory. It’s simply a question that arose from the overlap of a few ideas. Based on that question I started to wonder how I could use that question to help the people I consult with. If backlogs are a potential source of stress within organizations, then a few things might follow:

  1. The larger the backlog the more stress you may encounter on the teams responsible for that work
  2. The longer the backlog is held, the more stress you may encounter
  3. Eliminating or changing backlogs should change how people feel emotionally. In other words, there should be less stress with smaller/fewer backlogs.
  4. Can I use backlogs to locate stress in an organization? Alternatively, not all stress/tension is bad. In fact, some healthy tension is necessary.
  5. Can I create or use backlogs to help drive that tension or change where that tension/emotion is located in an organization?

This idea of backlogs as a sort of emotional battery for organizations has some intriguing potential when we talk about organizational transformation or change management. To my limited knowledge, I’m not aware of anyone who has experimented with these ideas to try and validate them. It wouldn’t be too hard to do. There are plenty of subjective measures for stress that are easy to use. Backlogs are easy to find. That’s all you would really need to start to test these ideas. The idea of a backlog as an emotional battery for an organization could be a very useful contribution to our understanding of how to help bring transformation or change to companies.

This is just one illustration of some of the ideas that came out of the Thermodynamics of Emotion conference for me. If you lock a physicist, a dog trainer, and an organizational consultant in a room, you never know what might happen. Be warned that the process is not a linear one. I worry that my writing may portray how this idea came about as linear. It was not a linear process at all. There was confusion, doubt and skepticism, a fear of pop-science oversimplification, and underlying it all, a conviction that there might be something useful buried here, if I was just patient enough to hang in there and find it.

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