Lean Thinking

03 October 2017

Teams As An Ideal Gas

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I have a confession to make. I'm a bit of a physics nerd. Actually that's not true. I'm a huge physics nerd. I'm not a trained physicist, I'm an engineer by training (which is pretty close...BTW that loud noise you just heard was a bunch of physicists' heads exploding at the thought of being compared to an engineer) but I have always loved physics. All that sets the stage for my next sentence - I was reading an article the other day on ideal gases (as you do) and suddenly thought that gases make a great metaphor for our teams. Stick with me on this...

An ideal gas is a construct physicists use to better understand the behaviour of real gases. Real gases are messy and awkward and do some strange things (like heat up when you compress them) which make studying them difficult. An ideal gas is a conceptual model of a gas that you can use to infer the behaviour of a real gas. In an ideal gas, you assume that the particles that make up the gas are free to move without impediments and when they interact, they do so in a perfectly elastic collision - both particles rebound and go about their business with no loss of energy. The speed of the particles is related entirely to the temperature of the gas. The hotter the gas the faster they move. This also makes an ideal gas a model of an ideal team.

How did I come to that conclusion? If you think about an ideal team, the people that make up the team are free to move about and do what they need to do without impediments. When they interact with others, they do so in a way that doesn't cause either of them to lose energy. They come together, interact and go off about their business with no loss of energy.

Ideal gases, of course, are not real gases, they are an idealised model of a gas. Real gases don't behave quite as simply. The particles don't interact perfectly elastically. They tend to stick a little and interact in ways that cause both particles to lose energy so they rebound a little slower than they came together with energy being lost as heat. Or one particle will grab all the energy in the collision and zip off to do its thing while the other is left drifting.

Our teams are not ideal teams either. The people in the teams aren't free to move about as they choose to, they are constrained in the paths they take and who they interact with. When they do interact, they don't interact cleanly in a nice elastic collision, they stick and bind and get in each other's way and slow each other down because the environment they are in doesn't allow them to interact cleanly. With each interaction, energy is lost. We have all had one of those days where each interaction we have with someone leaves us feeling a little bit drained of energy because it isn't a smooth interaction, until by the end of the day we are exhausted just dealing with people.

It's not just bad interactions either; trying to get things done in an organisation saps energy. We have to deal with cumbersome processes, poorly designed systems, bad working environments. All these things sap our energy and make it hard to get things done. This organisational friction drags on everyone in the organisation, saps their energy and stops them getting things done.

In a gas, energy lost to friction is lost as heat - the energy of the particles is transformed into low level waste heat. In our working lives, energy lost through organisational friction is lost as frustration, anger, low morale, poor engagement and burnout.

So what can we do about it? We can start by changing our systems to be more like an ideal gas (or ideal team). Look at processes and streamline them to remove friction. Change the working environment, design systems of work that help (rather than hinder) people. Free up people to get things done. We need to look at how people interact. We need systems in place that help people interact in a way that doesn't cause them to lose energy. We also need to teach people how to interact smoothly. How to give (as well as take) in an interaction, how to compromise, how to work together for a common goal, how to achieve win/win outcomes rather than win/lose.

The great thing about people is that they can actually do even better than an ideal gas. In a gas, the best you can hope for is that the particles enter and leave an interaction with the same energy. With people, a good interaction can add energy to the system. Have you ever had one of those discussions that fills you with joy and inspiration and everyone involved gets a real boost for the rest of their day? That's what we want all our interactions to be like.

Same with our processes, working environments and the like. Let's not settle for not losing energy, let's find ways for them to add energy to our people. Design great spaces for people to work that make them feel energised. Design great systems that free people up to be creative and passionate.

We don't just need to fix processes, we need to start looking at the whole working environment and figuring out better ways to design the whole system of work so that it adds energy rather than slowly, but surely, draining it out of us.

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