7. Local Symmetries.
Complex organizations typically have many levels of organizations. In life, there are cells which often have symmetry. The human body has large-scale bilateral symmetry (two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two sides to the brain, etc.). If we look at our hands, we see a thumb and four fingers. Each finger, and the thumb, each have roughly bilateral symmetry. Symmetries such as these are visible.
There are also often functional symmetries in living systems as well. We breathe in. We breath out. Our nervous system has excitatory circuits and inhibitory circuits. Most complex organisms reproduce via two sexes. Many animals have cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Often birds, and other animals have migrations tied to the cycle of the seasons. Trees are able to draw water up and move water down.
The structural symmetries and the functional symmetries are often connected. When a person runs, for example, they use one leg and then the other. In fact, as your left leg goes forward, typically so does your right arm. As you move your right leg forward, you move you left arm forward. As you breathe in, your rib cage expands on both sides symmetrically. As you breathe out, your rib cage contracts on both sides symmetrically.
Human organizations often have functional symmetries as well as structural symmetries. For example, most organizations have an “onboarding process” as well as a “termination process.” Our physical artifacts often exhibit local symmetries and these are often related to our physical and behavioral symmetries. A long boat, for instance, allows for multiple rowers to row in unison. The boat and oars are symmetrical and so is the rowing of the boat.
Human artifacts of many scales may exhibit local symmetries for two reasons. First, since most natural living things exhibit local symmetries, copying that may strike us a more beautiful. In addition, if one learns the skills necessary to make the left half of a canoe, one already knows a lot about how to make the right half, provided the canoe has bilateral symmetry. The same is true of an oar, a cane, a bowl, etc. It also makes it easier for the user of the artifact.
As a user of an artifact such a chair, for example, you come to expect that the right arm rest and the left arm rest will be at the same height and be equally hard. If the arm rests are at different heights, you will, I believe, be more likely to bang your elbow when shifting position or reaching for something.
One could, no doubt, adapt fairly quickly to a chair which had two different kinds of arm rests, but imagine a keyboard for your computer in which every key was a different size and shape. Or, imagine a piano keyboard in which all the keys were at different spacings, and sizes.
Local symmetries also offer another advantage. Systems with local symmetries are easier to repair or maintain. Imagine how much more expensive it would be to maintain a piano, for example, if a repair shop had to keep 88 different sizes of keys! In a similar fashion, imagine a programmer decided it would be fun to program every pull-down menu with completely different algorithms. When the next release of the application required changes or additions, it would make understanding and modifying the code much more difficult.
Why does local symmetry, as opposed to merely, symmetry, make sense? Let’s go back to the chair example. It might make sense for a family to have three chairs for three different sized people; e.g., a papa bear chair, a mama bear chair, and a baby bear chair. Or, think of tee-shirts that come in Small, Medium, Large, and Extra Large. It makes no sense to make every tee-shirt the same size. People differ a lot in their size. But for mass manufacturing, it does make sense that the left and right sleeves match for any particular size. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that the arms on papa bear’s chair are of a different size than the arms on baby bear’s chair. It doesn’t matter if the teeth on my comb are different from the teeth on your comb. It doesn’t matter if the tires on my Saab match the tires on your Range Rover. And, generally, this is true for most artifacts, organizational structures, architectural features, and anatomical features. Local symmetry almost always has four advantages: 1) it adds to beauty. 2) it’s easier to create 3) it’s easier for the user and 4) it’s easier to maintain or repair.
Design always carries messages. Design which solves our problem or beautifies our world or resonates and echoes the properties of natural beauty carries the messages: “I care. I am a bit like you. I am making this for you and others like it. It shows the beauty that I see is a lot like the beauty (and usefulness) that you see. You are not alone. We are in this together. You and I both belong to “Team Humanity.”
What could be more important?