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The First Law of Cybernetics

To me, the exciting thing about the First Law of Cybernetics is that it really helps you to understand the balance between efficiency and resilience.  

Optimising for efficiency is taking your work and simplifying it, streamlining it. It’s ensuring that everything that you do is as productive as it possibly can be and nothing is produced that is not needed. There is no wastage. 

The thing about resilience is that it requires variety. Oftentimes if you have a lot of variety not everything that you produce will always be right for the situation that you’re in. This can be seen as wasteful, however, in some situations you can’t necessarily predict what you’re going to need. Therefore, variety is necessary so that out of the various different things you have, at least one of the things will be pretty close to being suitable for the situation. 

What this allows is for you to deal with a lot more variety in situations and this is where Ashby’s law comes in (another name for the First Law of Cybernetics). It states that in order to deal with an environment or situation that has a high amount of variety you need to be able to respond to that environment with at least as much variety as that environment is presenting to you. 

In practice this means that when you’re in an emergent, complex environment it will be necessary for you to not try to be overly efficient with the way that you use your resources. These are the times where you really can’t predict what’s going to happen with any great degree of certainty, where there may be a significant range of possible outcomes, where there are many factors which you can’t control and predict.

When you are being efficient what you’re doing is you’re saying “I know the environment for which my output will be used and therefore I don’t have to hedge my bets producing the ability to respond to a more varied environment. I know that I have a very fixed environment therefore I need to have a very fixed way to respond” and that’s why you can really get efficiency.

The obvious example of where efficiency is desirable is in manufacturing where you know that you’re producing the same car over and over again. However, if you wanted to build a bridge somewhere then what you really need is a toolkit of materials and building techniques and so on so that each bridge you build can be different according to the environment that it needs to go in and the use that it’s being put to and so forth. 

In business, especially in innovation and emerging markets, it’s very important that you don’t look for efficiency too soon and you don’t seek efficiency in places where the market itself is still emerging. What you are essentially doing at that point is making it very difficult to be able to respond to changes in the environment – different competitors, different technological breakthroughs, or tools become available (see overfitting). Some market trends do emerge a bit more slowly but they do evolve so that has to be borne in mind over a longer period.

Staffing-wise inside a startup or an innovation team you may discover that as your new product-market fit develops, as your understanding improves, what you need to do and how you need to behave at different times may emerge in a much less predictable way than for an established business. Therefore, it’s important to remember not to seek efficiency and not to try to have a fixed structure or a fixed set of processes or to fix the staff roles. You will need to find people who are energised by the dynamic changing of the business and the variety of the work they may do or even the roles they may hold. 

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