The Physics of Organizational Change

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GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689

“Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.”

 In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton provided us with this simple but important law of motion. It was the first key for unlocking our understanding of the invisible forces governing the universe.

As anyone who has ever tried to change the direction of an entire company can tell you, organizations, like physical objects, are also subject to powerful and invisible forces. The bigger your organization, the more time, effort, and resources it takes to change its direction.

If you use Newton’s laws—whether to solve a specific engineering problem or to put a man on the moon—you have to know all of the forces involved, such as gravity, friction, and tension. But the forces that act on our organizations are not physical laws. They are forces of human nature. Fear, skepticism, and avoidance of discomfort are the three human forces most responsible for an organization’s resistance to change. All three of these human tendencies can cause people within the organization to dig their heels in and fight change instead of embracing it.

 

Fear

Change is often accompanied by fear and anxiety. Change produces many unknowns, and it is these unknowns that can put people ill at ease. After a change initiative has been announced people begin to wonder: Will my position be eliminated? Will I have to work with that one guy I can’t stand? Will they move me to a different department? Will I have a new boss? Will I have to learn new skills and technology? How will this affect my bonus? Is the company floundering? What aren’t they telling us?

 

Skepticism

Then there are the skeptics – those who may not be convinced that the change will make the organization or themselves any better off. Some will be vocal. Others will be quiet but will feel just as strongly that the change will be for the worse. Perhaps they do not agree with the leadership’s analysis of the problem or the methods proposed to address the problem. This skepticism may be manifested in outright insubordination or secretive undermining of the organization itself.

 

Avoidance of Discomfort

And then there’s the simple fact that people get comfortable in a familiar environment doing things the way they always have. The dismally low percentage of people who follow through with their New Year’s resolutions speak to the fact that long established habits and ways of living are hard to alter. Many people know that they need to change and genuinely want to, but just can’t seem to make it happen. Humans gravitate towards the path of least resistance and that tends to be the path they’ve been on the longest. Many of us just can’t seem to make the short-term sacrifices that are required for long-term gain.

 

Now that you know the forces you’ll be up against when leading change, how can you minimize and overcome them?

 

Communicate and Engage

The forces working against your efforts – fear, skepticism, and avoidance of discomfort – can all be greatly reduced with good communication and genuine engagement. First, share with your entire organization a vision of the future that justifies the necessity of the change. Either a change is urgently needed in order to survive or a change is necessary in order to seize an opportunity. You need to explain not only what and why you are doing something, but also open it up for discussion and feedback from all levels of the organization. What do people agree and disagree with and what are they worried about? Does anyone have an opinion that differs from the leadership team’s assessment of the problem and/or the solution? Give opportunities for people to speak openly in a group or privately one on one with members of the leadership team.

 

Assemble the Right Team

Organizational change requires a diverse team. First, you need a team member with charisma, who can initiate change and win over the whole organization with a compelling vision. Second, you need a team member who can do the research and analyses required to design and structure an effective strategy, plan its implementation, and anticipate problems. Lastly, you need someone who has the follow-through required to see to it that all the details are taken care of. This person also needs to be capable of holding the other team members accountable until the goal has been reached.

 

The fields of engineering and science took off once people understood the laws that governed the physical world. The laws that govern our organizations are not as calculable and clean as Newton’s, but they certainly exist and if we can understand them better, we will be able to do things we never before thought possible.


 

Image credit:

“GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689” by Sir Godfrey Kneller – http://www.newton.cam.ac.uk/art/portrait.html. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689.jpg#mediaviewer/File:GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689.jpg

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