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Changing Scenes with the Law of Requisite Variety

resume.jpgLater this month I’m going to do something I haven’t done for twenty years: apply for a job. This qualifies as a reasonably daunting task, one that I’m very much looking forward to.

No, I’m not giving up self-employment. The position I seek is half-time, one that suits me perfectly and offers an outstanding fit with my other work. Plus, I was invited to apply, so my chances should be good (wish me luck!).

But it’s been a long time since I sat on the applicant side of the interviewing desk, so I’m taking my preparation seriously. Especially so because my prospective employer is a large institution with a formidable bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy intrigues me. Every large organization has one, and all bureaucracies—none moreso than those involved in the business world—struggle to cope with ever faster-changing environments.

So while pondering the issue every job seeker must squarely address—how to best help one’s prospective employer—I realized that my background in entrepreneurship is the most valuable asset I offer. To deal with increasingly effective competitors, this organization needsdifferent_perspectives.jpg someone with a fresh perspective and a different skill set. In other words, it needs to introduce some variety into its system.

Variety. The word stuck in my mind, and while mulling initial steps in my application strategy, I stumbled across an intriguing concept, The Law of Requisite Variety. It’s from the discipline of cybernetics, the interdisciplinary study of complex systems originally defined as “the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine” (not to be confused with Dianetics, the controversial self-help movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard).

The Law of Requisite Variety applies to organisms, machines, institutions, and any other system trying to survive. “Survival” can be described as “maintaining essential variables within a proper range of values.” That’s something all systems try to do, typically with the help of some sort of control mechanism, or regulator.

Here’s the science behind it: W. Ross Ashby, the law’s formulator, said that disturbances (D) start in the world outside the organism—oftenw_ross_ashby.jpg far from it—and threaten the organism’s survival (drive the essential variables (E) outside their proper range of values) if the organism’s regulator (R) does nothing to block them. To maintain E within proper values, R must counteract each disturbance D. But to completely block the effects of disturbances, the regulator must be able to produce at least as many counteractions as there are disturbances. To completely eliminate disturbances, therefore, the regulator must embody as much variety as the disturbances.

In plain language, what does this mean? Ashby himself wrote that “in its elementary forms the law is intuitively obvious and hardly deserving statement.” He offered the example that a camera must be capable of at least twenty distinct settings to successfully take in-focus pictures of twenty different subjects lying at varying distances from the photographer.

But applications of the Law of Requisite Variety to business and other disciplines are clear. Only adaptable organizations can survive, and the way to become adaptable is to incorporate more internal variety. Here’s what the Panarchy Web site says about broader implications of the Law of Requisite Variety:

This is a central law for the proper functioning of every mechanical and biological entity. It has been totally ignored by the social scientists and by their patrons, the state elite, because it represents a refutation of the need for the concentration of power in a central apparatus (the state) as the only way to solve problems (or generally to deal with reality) in a complex society.

In fact, the law supports the exact opposite view, declaring, with the support of logical reasoning and empirical evidence, that only variety can master variety, reducing disturbances and promoting harmonious order … This principle then disposes of the myth (still cherished by journalists and sociologists in search of easy popularity) that extraordinarily complex situations demand the concentration of extraordinary powers in a central entity.

Putting it in business terms, when markets are changing and competition is stiff, corporate rigidity and centralized decision-making threatens survival (I love it when pundit-spouted aphorisms turn out to be backed by hard-core science).

change_freeway_sign_3.jpgSo there you have it: Proof that variety is not only desirable, but necessary to survival (give me some credit here, I’m exerting myself not to use a dreadful cliché involving the word “spice”).

How does this relate to my job search? Well, I hope to help change the scene at an institution I love, and equally important, I hope that this institution will help me change my scene. Together—and by providing each other with requisite variety—we’ll not only survive, but thrive.

You might also enjoy:

Recognizing the Opportunity Within

You’ve Got to Jump

Understanding the World Through the Thomas Theorem

6 Comments to Changing Scenes with the Law of Requisite Variety

On Mar 20, 2008, Chris Guillebeau commented:

A job, wow. I’ve tried to avoid those. :)

Perhaps in a future post you could share more about what kind of job you’re looking for, how the application process goes, and so on.

Good luck!

On Mar 21, 2008, by Tim commented:

I’m taking my own advice and vacationing from computing until March 28. Cheers! ~Tim

On Mar 28, 2008, by Tim commented:

Back now :-) Thanks for your good wishes, Chris. I’ll take your suggestion and write about the application and interview process, probably sometime in May.

On Oct 5, 2009, William commented:

Your posts are the best! Always helpful!

On Feb 7, 2010, Jane Smith commented:

Thanks this post really helped a lot. Even though I am working with an educational organization it is still applicable. It really applies to any organization.

On Feb 8, 2010, by Tim commented:

Thanks for saying so. I’m in the midst of my second shot at joining just such an organization :-)


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