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Newton's Laws of Motion and Organizational Change

By Tim Zuerlein, CPIM | N/A 2011 | 6 | 7

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton postulated three laws in an attempt to explain why objects move (or don't move) as they do. While laws of social interaction are far more complex and daunting than Newtonian equations, Newton does offer us some important insight into change management.

Like the fable of the apple that fell from the tree, we too must recognize forces exist throughout organizations with regard to change. At many companies, successful change implementation means weeks, if not months, of time and effort. Business losses due to improper change management amount to billions of dollars each year. However, by recognizing these forces exist__and with the proper focus and tools__it's possible to dramatically increase the likelihood of success.

The basics of force
A force is a push or pull upon an object resulting from its interaction with another object. Whenever there is an interaction between two items, there is a force acting on each. When this interaction ceases, the two entities no longer experience a force.

In Newton's world, all forces or interactions can be grouped into two categories: contact forces and action-at-a-distance forces. Contact forces involve two objects physically touching one another. In an organizational sense, this may manifest itself as people carrying out a similar work function, such as a supervisor and subordinate relationship. Action-at-a-distance forces entail two interacting entities not in physical contact, but able to exert a push or pull on each other despite the physical separation. In a business sense, this may be represented by people working cross-organizationally.

Organizational behavior exhibits similar patterns of predictable outcome. Often, change is induced by outside forces, such as a substantial cut in funding or revenue, a need for dramatic increases in productivity or services, or a desire to address new markets and clients. Similarly, the transition of a new chief executive or department leader can instigate organization-wide change.

Companies typically must undertake change in order to transition to a different level in their life cycles. For instance, consider the shift from a highly reactive organization to a more stable and planned environment, such as one that is based on a disciplined sales and operations planning process.

Changes both large and small may unfold. Examples include a revised mission; restructured operations; new initiatives, such as total quality management or lean six sigma; and different technologies. This organizational transformation refers to a fundamental and radical reorientation of the way in which the business interacts and operates.

The laws
As the story goes, after Newton recovered from his blunt force trauma, he was inspired to use his experience to help explain the physical forces around him. He posited:

  • Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.
  • Force is equal to change in momentum per change in time. (For a constant mass, force equals mass times acceleration.)
  • For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Law 1. There are two parts to this statement: one that predicts the behavior of stationary objects and the other that predicts the behavior of moving objects. But the basic idea is that things tend to continue to do what they're doing.

Similarly, in the face of change initiatives, workers will maintain status quo behaviors and routines, rather than embrace significant changes to their previously charted course. Prior actions and behaviors must be well understood and considered in order to anticipate resistance to change and new ways of working together. When it comes to change management, never underestimate the dedication of the old guard to keep on doing what they've been doing. Changes are difficult to implement and even more difficult to sustain.

Law 2. Newton's second law pertains to the behavior of entities for which all existing forces are not balanced. It says that the acceleration of an item is dependent upon two variables: the net force acting upon it and the mass of the object. As the net force increases, so will the acceleration. However, as the mass of the item increases, its acceleration will decrease. In summary, unbalanced forces cause objects to accelerate at a rate directly proportional to the net force and inversely proportional to the mass of the entity. For example, if you are pushing something, causing it to accelerate, and then you push, say, two times harder, the acceleration will be two times greater. Or, stated another way, if you are pushing equally on two objects, and one has two times more mass than the other, it will accelerate at one half the rate of the other.

Similarly, the organizational effort required to implement change management after a merger requires time and resources above and beyond those required prior to a merger, as the "mass" of the organization is larger. In the absence of this added energy, the initiative may fail to gain the traction necessary to be a success.

Law 3. According to Newton, if items A and B interact, they exert forces upon each other called action and reaction forces. The size of the force on the first equals the size of the force on the second; the direction of the force on the first is opposite to the direction of the force on the second. Forces always come in pairs.

In the same way, during periods of dramatic organizational change, there are likely to be forces working against the intended direction of the change initiative. The resistance to change isn't necessarily sabotage. Rather, the individuals or groups may have legitimate concerns that could shape the outcome or critical feedback that would make the initiative even better. It is in the best interest of the sponsors to recognize and use this feedback in a constructive manner.

Effective process improvement can greatly increase efficiencies and cut costs. However, if gone about incorrectly, attempted improvements can produce significant waste, slow processes, and increase costs. The key to success in any change management endeavor is to understand the forces that work against an initiative and develop a plan to manage and sustain success.

Tim Zuerlein, CPIM, is a supply chain director at Nestle Purina PetCare, a provider of pet care products and services. He may be contacted at tjzuer@sbcglobal.net

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