In his book ‘The Accidental Universe’, Alan Lightman, a physicist and novelist, dedicates a full chapter to symmetry principles. Mr. Lightman notes that nature offers many examples of perfect symmetry, such as the shape of beehives and flowers. An explanation for such occurrences is the fact that symmetric designs are most energy efficient, and that the ability to save energy drives natural selection. According to the ‘energy principle’, nature evolves to minimize energy. In short, symmetry is economy.
Human beings are demonstrably attracted to symmetry themselves as they crave order and simplicity in a chaotic world. Furthermore, symmetry takes less energy to process from a neurological point of view. It is thus instinctively appealing, which is why it is used in various contexts.
In oral or written expression, the symmetry principle leads to the concept of ‘chiasmus’ which is a rhetorical device defined as ‘an inverted relationship between the syntactic elements of parallel phrases’. For example, citing Martin Luther King, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ The great orator Winston Churchill was an avid fan of this tool to produce effective zingers such as ‘Let us preach what we practice; let us practice what we preach’ in his Iron Curtain speech in 1946.
In motion pictures, a master of the concept is Stanley Kubrick who uses it to as special FX to create a captivating, almost hypnotizing atmosphere. A visit to the excellent Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum in Kensington reminds visitors of the many scenes relying on symmetry: Picture the eerie twins at the end of the long corridor of the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining’, Alex DeLarge’s gang sitting on a couch and drinking some Moloko Plus in the Korova Milk Bar in ‘Clockwork Orange’ or the barracks in ‘Full Metal Jacket’.
Symmetry can be used in structuring stories too. Stanley Kubrick’s movies heavily rely upon them as he extensively uses mirrors, doppelgängers, doubles or alter-egos to suggest duality, with ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ being a perfect example. In an alternative universe, certain Harry Potter fans convincingly demonstrate that the seven books by JK Rowling respect strict symmetrical principles, which makes the story even more satisfying from a reader perspective.
The term itself rhymes with balance. The Fed has been using the word ‘symmetry’ since 2016 when outlining its goal around inflation, thereby projecting a welcomed sense of wisdom: ‘The Committee would be concerned if inflation were running persistently above or below this objective. Communicating this symmetric inflation goal clearly to the public helps keep longer-term inflation expectations firmly anchored’.
It is tempting to establish a link with the trends in Diversified Industrials around simplification and balance when it comes to organizational structures as well as equity story telling. Needless to say, symmetry principles should not drive a company’s strategy. But a company’s strategy can be outlined alongside symmetric principles to increase its appeal to investors. In that respect, could the two-divisional organization structure become the most natural response to investors’ natural preferences in Diversified Industrials?
Whilst symmetry is inherently reassuring, art often deviates from it to bring some contrast and trigger an emotional response. Mankind is indeed full of contradiction. Indeed, Mr. Lightman notes that ‘We are drawn to the symmetry of a snowflake, and we are also drawn to the amorphous shape of a cloud floating in the sky. […] We honor those people who have lived upright and sensible lives, and we also esteem the mavericks who have broken the mold ’.
So when presenting an organization, its strategy and its story, let’s settle on 90% symmetry, and 10% ‘Je ne sais quoi’.