Fractals and Performance

Benoît B. Mandelbrot, the father of fractals, known for describing the eponymous Mandelbrot Set, died Friday, October 14, 2010, at age 85.

It’s likely you have seen computer-generated fractal art, a testimony to the widespread cultural influence and popularization of Mandelbrot’s mathematical and geometric insights.  Or perhaps you have made sophisticated use of fractals in computer science, cartography, geology, human physiology, or other fields, or benefited from such application.  And we have all seen fractals occurring in nature.  We just might not have known it.

Mandelbrot famously said:

Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones,
coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth,
nor does lightning travel in a straight line.*

This made me think of other things that aren’t smooth and don’t travel in a straight line such as human development–in individuals, work groups, organizations, and societies.

While perhaps not truly a fractal (I am not a mathematician), the “S-curve” appearing in Figure 1 is not really as smooth as it looks (which may be all it has in common with fractals).


Figure 1. "S" Curve

The curve represents improved performance over time.  It looks smooth, but it’s not.  A closer examination of the curve (overlaid) shows a fractal-like stair-step (Figure 2).


Figure 2. S Curve, Detail

This highly stylized stair-step representation of performance improvement over time reveals “shaping” at work.  Pin-pointed actions.  Small steps.  Near-term goals.  Frequent feedback.  Continuous improvement.  Nearly unlimited opportunities for curiosity, inquiry, discovery, application, observation, modification, and implementation.  It bears the stamp of Plan-Do-Study-Act; of Learn-Do-Teach-Lead.  It plots the path from competence (do the job), efficiency (do the job better), proficiency (do the job/teach the job), mastery (do the job differently), and innovation (do a different job).

Our simple model, of course, can be applied at any level of granularity to represent steps within a skill, skills within a task, tasks within a job, jobs within a project or team, projects within a mission, and on, up and down the scale.

Fractals help us see, and when we turn our fractalized gaze toward talent management, we can see so many opportunities for growth.

Learn.  Do.  Teach.  Lead.  Fractalize.

Follow @erikjul

* Mandelbrot, B.B. (1982). The Fractal Geometry of Nature. W.H. Freeman and Company.

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