Sunday, January 27, 2008

Newton Was Right -- Effecting Change in Your Company

This is one of a series of articles on the relationships and parallels of the physical and natural sciences to the dynamics of a business organization. I hope you'll extract some good ideas from these. I hope further that you'll consider adopting some of these parables or "word pictures" in communicating with your own organization. People tend to remember things in visual and familiar terms, and this physical metaphor for propelling change in your business may be useful.

Do you have things within your company that you'd like to change that have simply resisted all efforts so far? Perhaps it's a person's behavior. Perhaps it's a department's behavior or attitude. Perhaps it's a relationship with a customer. Or a change in a business process. You get the idea.

Visualize that employee, department or business process as a physical object that won't move. A physical metaphor for this situation is an object that's standing still, and hasn't moved yet despite the amount of pushing (force) we've applied. Despite our best and multiple efforts, it's still exactly where it started and not moving an inch. Let's visualize that situation as a box of rocks sitting on the floor, and the change we want (the goal) as moving the box of rocks across the floor. From, say, Point A to Point B or even beyond.

In physical terms, here's what that looks like: We've applied a given amount of force, perhaps continuously, more likely sporadically, and the box of rocks is simply sitting exactly where it started. Why is that? Because of the opposing force, friction. The force of friction between the box and the floor is simply larger than the force we've applied to the box, and it's not moving until something changes. This is an example of Newton's Third Law, commonly paraphrased as: "To every action force there is an equal, but opposite, reaction force". This actually isn't a physics lesson, but if you're interested, here's a Wikipedia article you may find interesting:'s_laws#Newton.27s_third_law:_law_of_reciprocal_actions

What's the organizational analogy to friction in this example? We commonly call it "pushback". Someone (or group of someones) just doesn't "get it" and is actually (perhaps passively) resisting the change we want. Or a customer is pushing back against a change in a business process. The subtlety of organizational friction is something to behold. It's everywhere -- punctuality, productivity, quality, cost reduction, revenue growth, etc. In every case, there's a frictional force pushing back against our efforts to effect change (improvement).

Now, in this physical analogy what could we do differently?

The "manager" style, in most cases, reacts to this situation with what? More force. We're generally trained to "make things happen" and the most obvious way to do so in this case is to push harder.

What are the other options?

We could enlist someone else to help push -- to apply even more force -- "gang up on 'em" (Here's where this "inanimate object" model fails slightly -- when you try this in organizations, many times the pushback (or frictional force) actually increases, making forward progress even harder).

We could tie a rope to the box enlist someone to pull. How do we do that in an organization? By showing someone else how it's in his own self interest to cooperate and to assist. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, laid the entire foundation of his economic theories on the self-interest of the individual, saying: "By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." And free-market economic systems have generally proven Smith right.

So, instead of pushing harder, the "Leader" examines the self-interests of those not actively pushing back (easiest initial targets) and puts communications and perhaps incentives in place that will align their self-interests with those of the organization. Now, we have two forces acting against friction, both push by management and pull by employees, and the box begins to move.

Or does it? Perhaps even those two forces together still don't move the box. What then?

The only force keeping it from moving is the friction, isn't it? How would we solve that problem?

There are a few ways to physically reduce friction. In this example, one way would be to add lubrication -- to wax or grease the floor. What's the organizational analogy to that? It's a perceptive, enlightened leader who understands the idea of other people's self-interest asking the magic question "What's getting in the way?", and then eliminating or reducing the resulting pushback (friction). This is my personal favorite strategic planning question. I have seen companies who successfully answer and fix "What's getting in the way?" turn from near failure to outstanding performers.

How do you figure that out? The best known strategy -- ask. In almost every case, properly approached, someone will tell you what's getting in the way. It may be you. It may be an existing policy, put in place for a completely different reason (perhaps one long forgotten). Many times it's a broken compensation system, and/or the broken measurement system that goes with it. Or maybe the lack of a compensation system that makes it clear what we want and rewards for that. In that case, it's probably an opportunity to both reduce friction and increase pull. If the employees believe that "Something good happens to me if I stop pushing back or something even better happens to me if I start pulling", you've either reduced friction, increased pull, or both. Or, as a last alternative, "Something bad happens to me if I don't".

What it it's an external force that you can't control? A Union? A competitor? A customer? Maybe push and pull are your only options.

Or are they?

What about reducing friction by taking half the rocks out of the box? Again, we're not teaching physics here, but the force of friction is, in fact, directly proportional to the mass (weight, for our purposes here) of the box plus the rocks. So half the rocks is a reduction in friction of almost half. How does this relate to our business problem? It's like breaking the problem down into parts and attacking one part at a time. Or reducing the complexity of the intended change. Or taking things sequentially, rather than simultaneously. If moving rocks is the objective and we have only a given amount of push and pull to apply, what's wrong with moving half the rocks now and coming back later for the other half?

Now, as the box begins to move, we come to the advanced lesson -- dynamics vs. statics. Up to this point the box has been immobile. Once it begins moving, however, the game changes and the frictional force changes from "potential friction" to "kinetic friction". Kinetic friction is always lower than potential friction. Think about your own experience -- when you're pushing something across the garage floor, it's easier after it starts moving, right? Once you achieve the "breakaway force" (push plus pull) -- the force required to start the box moving, it keeps moving with less force applied, doesn't it? That's because the friction changes from potential to kinetic friction, which is less resistant to your efforts.

Now we're talking about acceleration. With a continuous amount of force applied to an object, Newton's Second Law kicks in, sometimes paraphrased as: "The rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the resultant force acting on the body and is in the same direction."'s_laws#Newton.27s_second_law:_law_of_acceleration

In our metaphor, that would mean the box of rocks would start moving faster, and we'd of course have to start running to keep the same amount of push and pull applied. Examining Newton's equation, we see that the velocity of the box, with the same amount of force continuously applied, would exponentially accelerate the speed of the box, eventually reaching the speed of light! How would you like that happening to a previously "immovable object" in your company?
So, I offer the idea that Newton was, in fact, right. Not only about rocks but also about business. If you want to effect change in your company, look for "What's getting in the way?" and examine the self-interests of all concerned to see if you can get those aligned with your goals. Life's a lot easier when you stop pushing harder.

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Terry Weaver

Chief Executive Boards International
864 527-5917

Chief Executive Boards International: Freedom for business owners & CEOs -- Less Work, More Money, More Freedom to enjoy it

1 comment:

  1. I presented this at a Chief Executive Boards International meeting today, and members suggested more alternative ways of moving the box -- including machinery. Rollers, hand trucks, fork lifts, etc.
    So what's the business analogy to that? For one thing, automation. If what's getting in the way is people, or the capacity of your people, automate to take the people out of it. If defect levels are the immovable object, redesign or retool to eliminate defects entirely.
    If you have additional ideas for extending this metaphor, please share them with us.


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