Sir Isaac Newton- OD Consultant

I originally wrote this as an article draft for my column at Arkansas Business. While it was fun to do, it seems more appropriate to offer as a bit of whimsy here. And while the geeks and I had fun with it, there is more than a little wisdom in applying Newton’s laws to your change plans as a check in.


Working with a group of scientists recently, I learned that the three laws of physics also apply to managing relationships and to organizational change. Just as they are axiomatic in the laws of physical existence, they are axiomatic in the patterns of human behavior. So, with apologies to the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (of which Newton was a member) here is my spin on Newton’s 3 laws of motion as it applies to people and organizations.

1. Inertia– The first law states that an object will continue indefinitely in its current speed or direction unless or until some outside force acts on it. That course and speed can be non movement as well. 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 sufficient to alter that course. Organizations (and the people that make them up) do not change, or get into motion for that matter, without some change in the forces that impact them.

2. Relationship of Mass, Acceleration and Force– Roughly stated, the second law guides us about how much force and influence is needed to move (or stop) a body. The more massive something is, the more force is needed to get it in motion and keep in on a chosen path once it is moving. Here is where most change projects run afoul of physics. In the vacuum of space if you push a golf ball until it achieves a certain speed and direction- it will travel at that speed and direction indefinitely, unless it is impacted by dust or a collision that will change its speed and direction. Apply that same amount of force to the same ball when it is sitting on the carpet in your office and it will soon be at a dead stop again. Alas, we do not get the ease of running our change initiatives in space. If we look at the math that Newton provides, we get a hint about how much force and acceleration is needed to not only get the change started, but 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 which resists the change. And, since 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. In the case of organizational change, the third law may be optimistic. The volume and sheer force of reaction when a new change is announced is often many times that of the announcement. Consider the response to the announcement of Bernie Madoff’s arrest.  Or if you need a more direct demonstration, casually mention at the next staff meeting that you are changing the food in office vending machines to be sugar free/ fat free and you will immediately see what I mean. What we can count on is that there will be a response. Leaders who go into that meeting unprepared for it will find themselves dodging resistance 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 they will have to face to make a change work