Energy, Teams and the 2nd Law of Thermal Dynamics – Part II

In the first post of this series, we examined the theory that the human race, people, our species,  are essentially reflections of the universe. Small, concentrated balls of energy. When  new projects, missions, teams, start-ups are kicked off, as people are brought together and combined friction ensues, and massive amounts of energy are combined. Everyone is excited. Teams form bringing the energy of multiple people into a concentrated space.  

I have had some great feedback on the first post in this series on the nature of energy and wether or not this mixing of science and people is valid – I have taken that on board, and i’m going to stick with the thread of the argument for now and keep the analogy. Its a strong opinion, loosely held – maybe i can sway one day when I get enough compelling contrarian evidence!

As this energy is built up like a tesla coil,  the way of working, the system and process we follow is created. But something strange happens over time, almost every time. That energy dissipates. 

How does energy slow down?


The energy dissipates in that group of people. Slowly but surely, the level of energy seems to drop back to that of the level of energy of the broader eco-system around it. In a waterfall project, with  long lead times before real feedback is achieved or the product is delivered, or anyone outside the  team is engaged in any kind of meaningful dialogue or presentation,  energy slowly dissipates. Energy disperses as time progresses. In the open systems we find in most organisations, this is often accelerated. In closed systems were an investment is made in logistics, the teams are co-located and segregated from the rest of the organisation,  this is more of a slow release.  This gives rise to alternative problems such as ‘true’ feedback on what you are creating, but that can be mitigated and resolved via other mechanisms and not the topic of discussion  here. Teams over time lose momentum naturally if we don’t take active measures to prevent that occurring.

How do we sustain the energy we observed at the start? How do we maintain motivation and enthusiasm? How do we stop the Second Law of Thermal Dynamics taking hold?

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.” Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy is a measure of this tendency, quantifying how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system, and how diffuse those particles are throughout space. It increases as a simple matter of probability: There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed. A cup of coffee and the room it sits in become the same temperature, for example. As long as the cup and the room are left alone, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up again because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against so much of the room’s energy randomly concentrating in its atoms. But its ALWAYS the coffee that cools down – the room doesn’t heat up.

Although entropy must increase over time in an isolated or “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low — that is, divide energy unevenly among its atoms — by greatly increasing the entropy of its surroundings. In his influential 1944 monograph “What Is Life?” the eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued that this is what living things must do. A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure.

Thats a mouthful – especially if your not from a scientific background like me!  To simplify it there is a couple of points.  Heat, which is an expression of energy, cannot pass from a colder body to a hotter body…. Cold bodies can and do absorb heats. This process is irreversible. 

smiley-1041796_1280Energy cannot be destroyed, but when energy is converted in form, some is lost as waste heat. It spreads out into its surroundings, becoming diluted among all the available molecules until no temperature differential exists and it is stretched too thin to ever be recovered. Entropy has just increased. This is the heart of the 2LOT: in every reaction, usable energy decreases and entropy increases, even if only by a small amount. The most common phrasing of the 2LOT is that in a closed system, net entropy always increases. A system is any collection of interactions; a closed system is one that exchanges neither matter nor energy with its surroundings.

There are a coupe of holes in this theory though in applying to people and teams – generally this can only flow one way and is in fact not reversible. As the First Law of  Thermodynamics states “the total amount of energy in the universe is constant; energy can never be created or destroyed.” So when teams come together for projects and missions, what energy are we seeing? Its often palpable, so what is it if no new energy is being created?

Ive seen projects and teams that at the outset have huge amounts of momentum and energy. Gradually they seem to lose energy and decay, losing momentum, to sometimes then be picked back up again and delivered. My thinking though is that when you  are in this situation, what happens is usually enough of a change to the ‘work’, either in people, scope, time etc, that its in fact a ‘new’ project or team anyway. Maybe in effect we are starting again and not actually reversing anything?

In Part III I’m, going to posit that an agile delivery team, one that truly attempts to implement the values, in effect builds and then regularly re-builds energy through the creation of an ‘open system’. Customer collaboration, regular and early delivery, individuals interacting, and even how it responds to change. We will look at more about energy and the natural decay of systems that occurs when you think your safe, doing what you have always done, but in fact your’e declining.  We might also explore the concept that the value an agile coach brings is to inject energy into your system to push you over the next barrier. 

Thanks for reading – and as always comment and feedback welcome!

Check out Credus if you’re interesting in understanding how as a leader you can  create the environment for your people to be able to Observe, Understand, Think and Act differently to remain relevant for your customers.


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