Isaac Newton: Executive Coach

A few years ago, I took the executive team of a technology company off-site for what was to be a weekend devoted to understanding and developing emotional intelligence. You need to understand that everyone in the room had a graduate engineering degree and an MBA. They were really smart — and I continually felt like I was working in a Dilbert cartoon.

The company (about $350 million and global in scope) was planning for a major change initiative. The leadership team members, while powerful linear thinkers, were having a hard time grappling with the softer side of change leadership.

We were put on track by one of the execs whose graduate work also included a heavy dose of physics. As it turns out, all of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion apply to human behavior — and especially to leading change. So, with apologies to the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, of which Sir Isaac was a member, here is my spin on Newton’s three laws of motion as they apply to people and organizations.

Law 1) Inertia. The first law states that an object will continue indefinitely at its current speed or direction unless or until some outside force acts on it. That course and speed can be nonmovement as well. “A body at rest remains at rest.” This one should be pretty easy. Anyone who has tried to lead change knows that an organization will continue to behave in the way it always has unless some force or influence is applied sufficiently to alter that course. Organizations (and the people within them) do not change, or get into motion for that matter, without some change in the forces that impact them.

Law 2) Relationship of Mass, Acceleration and Force. Roughly stated, the second law guides us about how much force and influence are needed to move (or stop) a body. The more massive something is, the more force is needed to put it into motion and keep it on a chosen path once it’s moving. Here is where most change projects run afoul of physics. In the vacuum of space, a small push creates almost infinite movement. Apply that same amount of force to the same object on Earth and it will soon be at a dead stop again.

If we look at the math that Newton provides, we get a hint about how much force and acceleration are needed to not only start the change, but to keep it in motion. Newton said that the amount of force multiplied by the amount of acceleration must be equal to the mass for movement to occur. So if we want to launch and sustain a change, the amount of force and acceleration (communication, training, tools, reinforcement, rewards, compensation, enrollment promotion, etc.) must be more than the mass of the status quo, which resists the change. And because we are not making changes in a vacuum, those tools must remain in place to preserve the new direction until it is fully accomplished — often weeks or even years.

Law 3) Action and Reaction. The third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The volume and sheer force of reaction when a change is announced indicate how much energy will be needed to sustain the change. If you need a demonstration, casually mention at the next staff meeting that you are changing the food services to be sugar and fat free and eliminating soft drinks and you will immediately see what I mean. What we can count on is that there will be a reaction, often in the form of resistance. Leaders who go into that meeting unprepared for that resistance will find themselves on their heels rather than putting a new plan into place.

There are many effective change methodologies available to leaders of change, but a check-in with Isaac Newton’s three laws is a quick way to evaluate the team’s understanding of what the members will have to face to make a change work.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, August 12, 2013.