Richard Feynman, the eminent physicist, once said that things on a very small scale behave like nothing that you have any direct experience about. He was referring to the bizarre world of quantum mechanics, where an electron is everywhere all at once, light can either be a particle or a wave, and paired particles synchronize instantaneously regardless of distance.
The very small is totally different from the very large: The system is non fractal.
Fractal structures are irregular geometrical structures whose shape appear to be similar regardless of the level of magnification at which it is viewed. For example, a grain of salt looks like a rock when magnified, and looks like a mountain when magnified even further.
The distinction between fractal and non fractal is important if you want to introduce best practices to optimize and scale an organization. A best practice will only be effective when dealing with a fractal system, but may hopelessly fail when dealing with a non fractal system.
This is for example the big issue with macro-economics: It’s a non fractal system where the small (e.g. individual behavior) is very different from the big (e.g. government behavior). Yet, we often assume that that they are governed by the same laws.
Three signs that you are dealing with a non fractal system where scaling best practices may not be effective are:
- Large number of stakeholders with competing goals and objectives.
- Winner-takes-all dynamics: A few activities, processes or products are essential and capture almost all value.
- Exponential impact of risk: Spilling a drop of chemicals may be harmless, spilling a tankload of the same chemicals may be disastrous.
All of these have in common that they magnify structural weaknesses in any system that you want to scale.
Be careful with mindlessly copying best practices: What works in a neat, fenced, and controlled environment, may lead to ruin when applied on a larger scale outside its borders.