The Entropy of Insights

I was flipping through my Readwise highlights the other day, and came across this gem again. It’s the neatest wee description of entropy; moving “from rare configurations to common ones”.

Except from Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo

It started me thinking about a variety of projects from the last year, where I’ve been working with teams who benefit from taking a longer, more detailed look at information.

Side note: this has often meant building information systems in things like Airtable. I’ll no doubt wax lyrical about another day, but the short version is that:

  • My thinking around projects like these is now informed by the information as light, not liquid work from a couple of summers ago
  • No-code platforms like Airtable are beginning to give people a whole new way of seeing, without being hardcore data-viz specialists. It’s become the practical application of a theoretical philosophy

Back to the rare v common configurations.

Common insights are the ones that most people will come up with at a glance. The first three or four points that jump out to people when presented with common occurrences. Most businesses will be naturally configured to generate common insights, especially if people tend to be looking around at their own area of specialism.

Rare insights happen when combinations of information are put in front of people who don’t often see them. For instance, you give an existing team new information from a different part of the business. Or bring in a new team, give them existing information, and ask for a fresh perspective. How can we look at things differently?

I would reckon that this is a standard practice as a one-off; a business cycle inevitably has a phase where people are trying to see things in new ways.

But to the original point, entropy kicks in when that cycle ends. A business returns to a place where the insights are more likely to be common ones, rather than the rare type.

Are good (even great?) businesses more likely to be the ones continually committed to finding rare insights, acting upon the valuable ones so they become common, and all the while seeking the next rare ones?

How do these businesses fight insight entropy?

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