Different scales. Different forces

There is a very interesting discussion on Physics StackExchange on how long a straw can Superman suck from.

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Seen here Mark Eichelaub sucking with a 3 m straw

After a lot of sophisticated calculus, the forum seems to conclude the answer is 15 m.

Image result for superman sucking water
I don’t buy the math. Old superman could freeze a lake. I believe he can do better than 15 m.

This got me curious to ask a different question.

If it is so hard to suck water to a greater heights, how do tall Redwood trees that grow as tall as 120 m supply water to the leaves at the top? Surely tiny little leaves can’t be stronger than Superman.

Or are they?

Image result for redwood trees

Like many science questions most textbooks and forums give the simplified answer. Water evaporates thru the leaves, creates suction thru vacuum and pulls the water up. That’s just part of the answer.

To understand fully, it requires an appreciation of Surface Tension, a ‘gentle force’ that is felt at a very micro levels.

Water molecules have a tendency to stick with each other more than most. At the surface the force is felt only on the inside, other side being air. This causes the molecules at the surface to behave like a thin blanket and curve inwards causing a bubble.

Related image
Ever notice how water droplets form a spherical structure. This surface tension is the “skin” of a body of water that makes the molecules stick together.

Getting back, to the question.

How the leaves suck the water so high in Redwood trees?

Helen Czerski in one of my favorite physics books Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life writes ….

Capillary action which pulls the water in the towel can push water a little high from the a tree’s roots but how does it reach the sky? On top of the tree, all the narrow cellulose pipes open up in the leaves. The sunlight heats the water in the leaves and one of the molecule gets enough energy to become gas and leave. Now the surface of the leaf is out of equilibrium, so the water molecules from below is pulled through the cellulose pipe and water molecules will be in equilibrium again.

At the human level, gravity and intertia are king because of our big size. But in the world of small, the surface tension and viscosity are the king. 

It’s the last para that was most intriguing to me and key to many secrets in nature.

As we move across scales, the forces that dominate and impact behavior are different. There is switch. A tipping over of which forces impact at what scale.

That got me thinking about large organizations. They too are systems with different forces at different scales, just like in nature.

Before we talk about organizations and leadership, let me call out the key takeaways from the discussion on sucking water and Redwood trees:

  • Different forces operate at different scales
  • Normally forces that work at larger scale (gravity) overwhelm forces that work at smaller scale (surface tension)
  • However, at smaller scale these ‘weak’ forces (like Surface Tension and Viscosity) take over the story-line to produce counter intuitive gravity defying feats (literally !!)

My own personal journey of leadership has been a realization and appreciation of the existence of these forces and counter intuitive switches in their relative power at different scales. Hopefully you will resonate with this journey too.

Initially you control all you can. You are successful and get promoted to larger roles. As one scales, it becomes apparent that complete control is no longer possible and helplessness ensues. For me this struggle lasted way into my late thirties, before realization about the ineffectiveness of control hit me. (I often explain it away as being a late bloomer, but it was probably more deeper than that !!) I finally got it.

Then like most other leaders I graduated to influencing a few directs, so they in turn can control to achieve results. This worked for a while. It broke down as I started taking up organization wide roles, rising complexity of the systems at play and the very long term goals I was working towards. Influence model started falling apart. Just like the water molecules pulled each other up the tree defying gravity, at the micro level of the organization behaviour and outcomes left me completely clueless.

I can’t provide a definitive answer to this problem, but have a hypothesis. The answer lies may lie in acceptance of emergence. (I am sure you expected me to say culture)

(Saying culture is not enough. Culture matters. But, culture is an emergent phenomenon. While it’s impact is well appreciated, most of us are often left wondering how to create it or what the levers are for it’s creation. By the way politics and innovation are also emergent phenomenon)

Image result for emergent phenomenon in nature

Emergence and the concepts of Complexity Science are vast topics onto themselves. The way I explained it to myself is that complexity is a system where the whole is much more than what all the parts add up to explain. In fact, many small entities and innumerable interactions eventually result in a complex system, and seemingly unexpected emergent behaviour.

Image result for emergent phenomenon in nature birds

Lot’s of weak forces at play in the micro-realm, result in a macro inexplicable phenomenon. That is the essence of emergence. I believe this switch in mindset of controlling or influencing the macro to recognizing the micro is the key to graduating to the next level of leadership.

If you all this is too abstract, think about how much impact one great delivery agent or a weak account manager interacting with your client or any hiring interview by an arrogant employee or a truly aligned new team leader can have on the longer term direction of your organization. Now think how hard it is to get them right at speeds and scale we are all operating in building organizations these days.

It’s the little things and little interactions that multiply over and over again to manifest in macro behavior like culture, sustainability or innovation. Which we know impacts everything, but can’t seem to figure out where it all comes from.

You are justified in accusing me of just defining the problem or opportunity, without offering any answers here. I am grappling with this idea myself. In a later post I will talk about how one can design for emergence and enable these micro forces. Until then don’t underestimate the weak forces at play !!

End of post

Jackie Chan – Behind the Scenes

My wife who reviews my blogs I am unsure of what I am trying to say, said I wrote too much here and meandered all over. So I edited a lot of stuff out. If you are like me who waits for behind the scenes at the end of every Jackie Chan movie, here are some edited portions.

Like many science questions most textbooks and forums give the simplified answer. Water evaporates thru the leaves, creates suction thru vacuum and pulls the water up. That’s just part of the answer. Did you physics teacher tell you that we feel weightless in space because there is no gravity? Sorry try again, acceleration due to gravity in outer space where astronauts orbit is 85% as on Earth !!

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence occurs when an entity (or a system – my addition) is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviors emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole. For example, smooth forward motion emerges when a bicycle and its rider interoperate, but neither part can produce the behavior on their own.

Emergence plays a central role in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. For instance, the phenomenon of life as studied in biology is an emergent property of chemistry, and psychological phenomena emerge from the neurobiological phenomena of living things.

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