|Book Review: The Entropy Vector|
The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business
Written by: Robert D. Handscombe and Eann A. Patterson. Singapore: World Scientific, 2004. 185+xii pages.
Although this book is not a must-read, it may change your views of product development. The authors are highly trained in the scientific principles of entropy and have experience in entrepreneurial businesses as well. They translate the scientific concepts of entropy into business guidance that is especially pertinent to product innovation.
“Entropy is the degree of disorder or chaos that exists or is created” (p. 1). Entropy, or waste, is a byproduct of all business processes. It can appear as lost labor, money, knowledge, or time, and it generally is unrecoverable. Although you can arrange to reduce entropy locally, globally entropy rises relentlessly. For instance, a refrigerator creates a cold space, but overall it generates more heat than cold from the electricity it consumes.
Vector, as the authors use the term, is incorrect. The Entropy Gradient would have been a more accurate title. Nonetheless, the authors' concept of an entropy gradient—or rise in entropy over time—is helpful in managing innovation. Basically, one should match the gradient of one's organization to that of its business environment, or should plan to lead the competition by employing a gradient that is slightly ahead of the industry. For example, Virgin Atlantic—this is a British book—leads a conservative airline industry: “Virgin simply take more adventurous decisions. They set a course that takes them into high entropy waters. The overriding philosophy is that it is better to decide and act than to prevaricate” (p. 130) (in British usage, prevaricate means “to deviate from straightforwardness” rather than “to lie”).
This material shines new light on many innovation management principles. One is that overconstraining a situation, for instance, by micromanaging it, leads to needless entropy generation. Another is that incremental processes, as advocated by the agile development movement (Highsmith, 2004), generate less entropy than prescribed (gated) ones. Although “green” design and environmental sustainability are enviable goals, the concept of complete recyclability (McDonough, 2002) violates the law of constantly rising entropy.
This book is short and easy to read. It illustrates points with many original cartoons and diagrams. Sadly, some of the material is shallow and has little obvious connection with entropy; you easily could skip chapters 8, 10, and 11 and probably chapters 4 and 6 as well (almost half of the book). Fortunately, the book is well indexed and is designed to allow sampling it randomly.