Business Change and Newton’s Laws of Motion

This is a parallel I’ve drawn in conversation for quite a while, but I’ve never written about – that change in business, in organisations and teams can learn something from the basic principles of classical mechanics.  And no doubt change, especially that which is complex, could also find a link to special relativity and quantum mechanics, but one thing at a time!

Why do I draw this parallel?  If we look at change in business, there are a few common mistakes that people are prone to making.  Let’s look:

Newton’s First Law
An object remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by a force.

This reminds us of a general principle that an individual, or a team, will continue to behave in their current manner unless there is impetus to change.  Humans are, we know, creatures of habit.  The design of our brains and the way that we assimilate knowledge seeks for us to be as efficient as possible. 

Taking the image from the wonderful book ‘Your Brain at Work’ by David Rock, Rock describes your conscious ‘thinking’ brain as a stage.  As you’d expect, there is limited space available on the stage to devote to every thought, so where possible – to conserve energy – our brains rely on autopilot responses and quick assessments of situations.

For those of you that drive, when you first learned to do so, the effort is conscious.  You think about your mirrors, your foot position, the clutch bite point and so forth.  In those first few lessons it’s also difficult to do things like meaningfully converse with the instructor or listen to the radio, and no doubt when the lesson finished you were tired.   It doesn’t take long however, with more practice and repetition, for the mechanical actions of driving to become automatic.  New drivers are often scared, when driving along a well-known route, the first time that they aren’t conscious; that is, you suddenly realise that you’re further on your journey and can’t recall how you got there.

This second mode – the automatic mode – is more energy efficient for the brain and is desirable.

Back to change.  We all have those automatic responses and muscle memories (I can’t accurately type “could” without typing “cloud”, or anything starting with Step… ends up being Stephen before I delete it and retype) and this creates an inertia.  Just as Newton said, an object either remains at rest or moves at constant velocity unless acted upon by a force.  

The first mistake then, is assuming that people and teams will change without impetus.  To make change, we need to make sure that people and teams _truly_ understand what’s expected of them and give them space to act.  Just like classical mechanics, this can be a ‘push’ or a ‘pull’ force, and more on that later.

Newton’s Second Law
The vector sum of forces F on an object is equal to the mass of that object multiplied by the acceleration of that object.  F = ma.

This reminds us of the general principle that a greater number of people (more ‘mass’, and not literally!) putting energy into a change (acceleration) in an organisation is a more powerful influencer (Force).

Put another way, a change is more influential when we have more supporters, each of which is driving that change.

That might at first appear obvious, but the second mistake is believing that wide change can come quickly from a small group alone, however passionate they may be.  That’s not the same as saying change doesn’t start with a small group, but rather (and in line with the First and Third Laws) that we need mass to make lasting, influential change.

An example could be an agile implementation.  There’s a constant question about where to start with transformation – start small with a group in the corner, get an imperative from ‘above’, get working on the culture first and many in between.  What I’ve experienced is that a first foray with a small group – especially when working on something inconsequential – inevitably has a small force.   One software team of 10 teams goes agile, and we give them something safe to play with; their ability to influence the organisation is very small.  That might work as a pilot in some circumstances but must ramp up to make any lasting change.  If the intention is organisational agility, significantly more.

Of course, Newton’s equation doesn’t just have mass; we also have acceleration.  Acceleration here I liken to energy (or you could say motivation, engagement, passion, belief or another similar word).  Changes that come from this place – a place of belief and energy – have a habit of attracting others to the cause, and literally acting as a force multiplier.   This might seem a bit ‘fluffy’ but consider a change which has loads of people on board, but seemingly going through the motions for an easy life.  How influential would that make the change?

Newton’s Third law
When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

This reminds us of the general principle, that when an individual or team are asked to change, you can’t expect consensus and an ‘open door’ to the change.

Starting with the first law, we have teams and individuals that are already working in a certain way.  They have inertia.  As discussed, to make the change happen, a force needs to be applied and logically from the second law, a larger force will have more impact.

But, and it’s a BIG one, there will be resistance* at some level, to any change.  This can be overt dissent, but more often manifests in the form of fear, inertia, culture, ignorance, planning or otherwise.

With the right level of support and influence, this resistance can be overcome, but the third mistake is to assume success just by ‘pushing harder’.  Just like Newton’s law where throwing a ball hard at a wall just makes it come back faster, aggressively driving through change has consequences.  Instead of this push, we need to invest time, break down the causes of resistance and solve them.  Don’t and there’s a risk of people reverting.

Since we’re talking about ‘pushing’ here’s a great way to think about it.  I picked this up from Bob Davids’ talk at Ted in 2012:  The rarest commodity is leadership without ego.

Paraphrasing, during the second world war, Dwight Eisenhower used a chain when training his generals.  He’d pile the chain on the table and ask: ‘where will the chain go if I push it?’.  The answer?  We just don’t know.  But instead, he asked ‘what happens if I pick up and pull the chain?’  It follows you.  And that’s the spirit of leadership in the simplest metaphor I think I’ve ever seen.

In summary

While the parallel may be crude, it might just help you to remember that:

  1. To make an individual or team change their current behaviour, there needs to be impetus.
  2. To make a deep, influential and lasting change, you must have mass and motivation.
  3. To make change stick, actively understand and solve the issues causing resistance.

* For much more on this, and how resistance is a lazy categorisation, see my other blog – “7 reasons why individuals struggle with change in business” here:

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