The Smell of Entropy

Years ago, a colleague and I walked into a long-standing Bennigan’s restaurant for lunch. We were seated pretty quickly and had our choice of almost any table in the joint. This was surprising because several businesses and a nearby hospital indicated a strong lunch crowd. But inside the restaurant, the decor was dated, the staff was apathetic and the atmosphere simply had no energy. Opening our menus, I looked at my friend and remarked, “This place looks like a funeral waiting to happen.” Within months, it was gone.

I was no oracle in my prediction. The indications of the restaurant’s demise were evident. You’ve probably noticed the similar signs in a diner, office supply store or church you’ve visited. The pictures on the wall are sun-bleached, the layout of the store feels archaic, the sermon message bears no relevance to daily life… It’s as if decisions were placed into a time capsule, then buried under some combination of apathy, bureaucracy and stubborn fear. We may not always be conscious of these indicators, but we can smell it.

It’s the smell of entropy.

What’s important has not been attended to. It has not been maintained, pruned and enhanced. And without a curator, these areas naturally degrade and begin to die. It isn’t always a physical death. Ideas, tools and methodologies inevitably age and decompose as well. You can smell it in a conversation with someone who hasn’t kept up with current trends and terminology.

Therein lies the problem – entropy is easy to spot in others, but hard to identify in ourselves until it’s too late. So what can you do to spot issues early on?

Get Out of the House
You probably won’t notice the scent of your own home unless you’re returning from a long absence. The same can be true of your organization or personal development. So, get out of your environment. Visit a competitor. Attend industry events. Read a current book (or five). Seek out online indicators of trends (industry news sites, blogs, Twitter trends, etc.). You’ll begin to realize what needs freshened up or tossed out of your home.

Invite Others In
Visitors to your home will notice the smell of entropy immediately. Invite them in. When you bring in a new hire, ask them to help identify what is old and stale. Be open to their input and willing to make healthy adjustments. Ask for input from new visitors to your church. They’re probably shopping around and have some observations of what expectations you aren’t meeting. Another option is to bring in some outside expertise. A consultant or advisor can bring some deep, vertical knowledge and expertise, specifically identifying some “quick wins” to get you up to speed with what is current.

The good news is that entropy doesn’t necessarily mean death. It may mean dying. And the best news is that death isn’t always permanent.

Dustin Staiger is a business consultant and speaker in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, communications, creativity and branding for global corporations as well as non-profits and start-ups.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “The Smell of Entropy

  1. Good stuff as usual. I liked the “get out of your environment” part. I notice things that I want to change a lot more strongly when I’m either driving or flying back home. I question why I’m doing what I’m doing and think of things I want to change. Of course, the reality is that all too often those things are put on the back burner once I drag my suitcase inside and “real life” starts up again. I also liked the “read a current book or five” piece. I think for Lent I’m going to give up reading fiction (my favorite pasttime) for a week and read books that help me personally or professionally instead.

    Good stuff as usual.

  2. Good thoughts Paul. I think changing patterns helps us to identify bad habits and ruts we have been settling into. I once heard someone state we “mistake the top of our rut for the horizon.” Getting out of our routine can help us see the true horizon.

    Also, finding the right mix of fiction and non-fiction reading is a good idea. I have to remind myself to read more fiction occasionally, which gets me thinking in new and helpful ways.

  3. I remember that place. You nailed it. I think there’s a pharmacy on that lot now. Interestingly, a few lots behind it there is a new and thriving McNellies pub. So the location was a good one, they just let their business model get stale.

  4. I think you’re right about a pharmacy being there now. Good observation about McNellie’s also. I’m a big fan of what Elliot Nelson and Blake Ewing have done as Tulsan restauranteurs.