Working with the Rough Shapes of Business

carl_saganThis week’s newsletter is probably the fault of Carl Sagan and his television series Cosmos. What I wanted to be when I grew up was always a toss up between art and science careers (Muppeteer vs. Paleontologist). I loved Carl so much (and his mmeellions and bbeellions of stars), it’s a wonder he didn’t single-handedly tip me all the way into the field of Spectral Astronomy.

But here we are. I am neither an astronomer, nor a paleontologist, nor a muppeteer. I am in the business of helping creatives like myself figure out how to do this self-employment thang.

But I still love a good public television science program – and the intersection of art, science and business.

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Working with the Rough Shapes of Business

I talk about systems and structures quite a lot. As in: Having systems frees your mind for more important work. Or: Creating structure supports the growth of your business.

But I am frequently worried that I’ll be misunderstood. These words have connotations that I don’t mean to imply.

For instance, I’ve tried to explain that the best structures are liberating rather than constricting, like Dr. Who’s TARDIS (my #1 top blog post, by the way, which I like to think is helping people, but I suspect it’s just disappointing a bunch of googling Dr. Who fans).

Clever comparison if I do say so myself, but perhaps fundamentally flawed.

Perhaps it would be better to look at structure in another way.

I’ve been thinking about fractals ever since viewing an episode of Nova about them last fall. Fractal geometry, if you don’t already know, is a branch of mathematics that describes the structures found in nature. Classical geometry (the stuff we learned in high school) does a great job of describing the built world, but it doesn’t work very well if you are trying to understand mountains or clouds or waves or trees or the human body (not to mention the human brain).

The underlying assumption of classical mathematics is that everything is extremely smooth and regular. This is not common in nature, and I’m guessing there isn’t much that feels all that smooth and regular about your days or your business either.

The conventional ways we try to organize our time and information would seem to be patterned after classical geometry – all lines and boxes (think of a calendar grid or a file cabinet). It’s no wonder it feels so unnatural. And I suspect it’s why using an architectural metaphor, even the TARDIS, is not so useful in the end.

What would happen if we organized ourselves fractally instead?

“What I did was to open up roughness for investigation.” -Benoit Mandelbrot (the man we have to thank for discovering fractals in the first place)

Like a tree, the structure of a growing business can appear very complex. But behind the seeming chaos is order if you know how to look for it. Mandelbrot’s advice:

“Think not of what you see, but what it took to produce what you see.”

What it takes to produce complexity is repetition – many, many cycles of repetition – which generates the defining characteristic of a fractal, what mathematicians call self-similarity. Basically, no matter what distance it is viewed from – zoomed in or out – the object looks the same, and its parts are miniatures of the whole.

For example, a “y” pattern or structure, repeated enough times, eventually yields a y-shaped tree.

Enough with the geometry lesson. How does this apply to my business?

First, it confirms the fundamental importance of repetition. I’ve yet to meet or read about a successful person, creative or otherwise, who does not diligently practice regular habits when it comes to work and self care. It’s not about talent so much as consistent persistence.

It also means you can start small. Begin with a simple pattern or structure that works well and repeat as necessary. You don’t need to figure out the big picture in advance. The repetition will create it for you. (I don’t know about you, but I find that to be a huge relief.)

Better yet, as it grows, the larger form will become increasingly efficient. It turns out in nature there is an economy of scale with an increase in size. An elephant, for example, is 200,000 times heavier than a mouse, but uses only about ten thousand times more energy in the form of calories it consumes. As far as scientists know, this economy of scale is nearly universal – and shows up in everything from microscopic bacteria to whales and sequoia trees.

“If you think about it for a minute, it would be incredibly inefficient to have a set of blueprints for every single stage of increasing size. But if you have a fractal code, a code that says when to branch as you get bigger and bigger, then a very simple genetic code can produce what looks like a complicated organism.” James Brown

Evolution has come up with a very simple and effective model for us to follow – a model that is built into very our bodies and minds. (Like, we’re probably doing it already, if we’d just pay attention.)

Give us some examples, please.

Okay, I’m still working this out for myself, but it seems this idea of repeated or branching structures might show up in these ways.

What if you created your business manual in the way you would chart a family tree? Only reorganizing or subdividing information about your business on the occasions of marriage and birth (or divorce and death)?

What if your time was always three parts doing to one part resting? What would that basic ratio look like repeated over an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year – again and again over decades…?

Despite the gaggy spreadsheet palette, it makes a lovely quilt, doesn’t it? Although technically this is not a fractal. I need a mathematician with a big computer to really figure out what this would look like. [click image to enlarge]

But how do I learn the code that tells me when to branch?

By paying attention to the turbulence. Remember The Universal Cycles of Change we discussed back in November?

  • CREATION: a system’s starting point
  • GROWTH: the period when a system develops and becomes self-organizing
  • COMPLEXITY to MATURITY: when a system becomes more complex, reaching the steady state at which it functions best
  • TURBULENCE: the point at which a system becomes too complex and problems begin to develop; without correction, the system will reach a state of…
  • CHAOS: when the system begins to fall apart
  • DROPPING OFF: the release or shift necessary to bring the system back into a steady state
  • MEDITATION & DORMANCY: the period when the system regains its balance and cycles back up into…
  • CREATION

Turbulence is the feedback from your environment that will tell you when something has to be reorganized or changed within your system for it to reach the next level of creation and growth. It’s your signal to branch.

This feedback may come in the form of feeling drained by activities that were once energizing, tension in relationships that are usually easy and kind, not being able to finish tasks you’ve normally been able to complete, not being able to find information when you need it. Confusion, overwhelm, resentment, exhaustion.

Basically, what was working isn’t anymore. So you listen to the feedback and make adjustments.

And here’s the good news: according to the author, Kristine Hallbom, with each cycle of Creation “The system now has less mass, yet more energy because it contains all the learnings from the previous cycles.” Which is pretty much what the scientists were saying about elephants being more efficient than mice.

A hypothesis to test.

So, I’m wondering: How much of our frustration and struggle might disappear if we lived and worked according to a more organic fractal model? What would happen if we used systems and structures that accommodated all the beautifully rough shapes and edges of our work and lives, instead of asking us to try (impossibly) to smooth them out?

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This is the sort of exploration of imagery and metaphor, rhythm and pattern, self-observation and feedback we will be undertaking in The True Discipline of Time Management. If this speaks to you, please consider joining us.

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1 Response to “Working with the Rough Shapes of Business”


  1. 1 JoVE January 20, 2009 at 6:44 am

    That is a great post. The fractal metaphor is making a lot of sense to me. So much more sense than the usual linear models of organization that are out there in the world. (which make sense but just don’t work for me)


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