Finding the free energy principle in life

Imagine you are working on a project with 3 people. One project member directly says he is great in leading the group, the other’s quality is to take care of finances, the third’s his specialty in development. Which leaves marketing as the only open position within your group. What do you do? Your specialty is not marketing, you can do it, but you don’t really like it. You rather lead the group, but your preference is not that strong. With a few motivational comments from your group members, it is likely that you will adopt the marketing position. If you adopt the task sufficiently the tasks of the group are balanced across the members and you can function efficiently.

You could argue that groups like this function through the free energy principle. The free energy principle applies to any biological system that resists a tendency to disorder. Systems will try to minimize entropy and use this entropy to retain order. You can imagine that the project group like mentioned in the introduction, could function without someone in the marketing position. But this will cause a lot of disorder. So the group would create a new position, to dissolve the disorder. Situations like this happen in various situations. In large scale businesses, in project groups, in innovations; positions get created through incapacity.

However, it is very interesting that this Free-energy principle is an outcome of evolution. Eco-systems function on the free energy principle, and animals evolve through it. So it is not really a cognitive process but a result of self-organizing principles. The main concept of self-organizing principles is that there is no central ruler that determines everyone’s roles, these roles just emerge over time through de-centralized organization. Today, we have models and fixed position, but when you innovate there is much more disorder. It is quite interesting to look at the way nature evolves (and innovates). Let’s give an example.

When a lion kills a wildebeest on the Savannah of Africa, the lions eat the largest and finest pieces of wildebeest’s meat. But over time, the hyenas are waiting to have their part. When the lions leave, the hyenas eat the parts the lions dislike. Once the hyenas leave, the vultures come and eat the meat the hyenas couldn’t reach. And once the vultures leave, the flies and maggots clean the wildebeest until there is nothing left of the wildebeest. Each animal has found their specific role within the ecosystem to disintegrate the wildebeest. Together, they work as an efficient machine eating nearly the whole wildebeest. But individually, they can’t stand each other. These animals aren’t organized from the top. There was never a central ruler that determined the roles of these animals, their roles just evolved like this.

This is a fictional example of the observation written above, where the brown bar represents the wildebeest the lions killed.

But how does something like that happen? How could such an efficient machine emerge without the presence of a boss? I believe, the most important factor that plays here is: feedback. Animals exchange information to find their place within the system. In the beginning, lions and hyenas might compete between the top-predator position. But the lion probably won this battle the most often, and killed the hyenas that competed with them, so the predator hyenas died young, and the scavenger hyenas evolved. There were probably multiple selection processes, like beaks, ability to kill, preference for meat parts, that interdependently evolved over time re-enforcing the hyenas specific role within the Savannah. For example, with teeth there is a certain trade-off between the ability to fight and the ability to pull dead meat. So a million years ago it could be possible that lions and hyenas were quite similar but over time they lost the fighting game and evolved to have different features in all dimensions. Just like birds “chose” the sky, and fish chose the ocean to develop and evolve. They went with the energy that was available to ensure their survival.

An example of project management roles. However, keep in mind that from scratch or with innovative projects, roles are not pre-determined for a project group. Moreover, roles differ per sort of project.

But these processes happen over millions of years, right? How could this be useful for us? The key in the game here is adaptation. Adaptation is the willingness and ability to change yourself within your environment. We humans are very good in communication and providing feedback to each other (albeit directly or indirectly). We can talk and state our preferences. We have written many books on role adoption to make efficient teams. But we also use statistics like job demands to create and develop universities. The ‘gaps’ in the market we talk about are the places where there is free energy; energy that easily obtained. But groups, organizations, and countries don’t appear from nothing. It is an illusion that you can create a perfect system instantly. Organizations (for example) need to evolve over time through multiple iterations. You can create something, but there will always be multiple processes you will forget to organize once you’ve started your business. Through feedback and information exchange you will start to learn where the roles develop towards and the gaps within the organization. In a small organization, it would be perfect if the involved parties all have their own job, excel in their job without having complementary capabilities. However, you need to understand where the capabilities of the other party ends. Because once a gap emerges between your jobs, you’ll encounter disorder. These gaps should be filled to increase order once more. As you continue to grow, it becomes impossible to have everything covered within your own position. You’ll need to branch and divide. These new branches should fill the gaps that emerge completely. For example, you might be able to handle marketing and sales at the start of your career, but over time, you might need two people to do this. You might specialize in sales, and you might hire a new employee to do marketing. Nevertheless, it is still important that your activities don’t overlap, but just touch each other. Therefore, it is very important to keep giving each other information through feedback to adapt towards each other’s role. Your specialty might be complementary when products or services overlap multiple parts of the company. Below I visualized this process as an ever-repeating fractal branch, filling the gaps within the organization.

Squared fractals of expanding branching step by step. This process could be repeated until infinity

As with branches of a fractal, the growth of a company is scale-free. This means that when you zoom into branches, the same patterns repeats. As with companies, you have the top managers (the CEO’s), the middle managers (like regional managers), the lower managers (department manager) to the lowest managers (the employees). I believe employees should be regarded as managers as well because they should manage their own activities. And if you treat your organization as fractal, they should be regarded as managers. You could imagine that the CEO’s are not always aware of the gaps at the smaller scales of the company. Therefore, managers at smaller scale should be able to make their own branching patterns, while being aligned with the larger pattern (showing a similar pattern like the top managers). Thus at each level, the mission and vision of a company should be shared across managers. There is much more to say but this blog becomes quite long. Diving into this could be a topic for a next blog, or contact me if you are interested!

A more natural fractal pattern resembling a tree or the lungs of a human

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