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Physics and the Science Behind Leading Change


By Kevin Lawrence

“Give me a lever long enough and a pivot on which to place it and I shall move the world.” - Archimedes

Although many of us complain about the speed of change in our lives, a look at physics gives valuable insights as to why organizational change is difficult.

Start with the quote above from Archimedes. Seriously? One man can move the whole world? As a mathematician and physicist, he meant this literally as an example of the power of the lever. His point is simple yet profound; the lever magnifies the force of the person using it, and the potential power he or she generates is only limited by the length of the lever.

Great! Because leading change in a large organization, or even changing something in our families, can seem like trying to move the whole world! Why? Let's return to physics. Think of two laws of another famous physicist, Sir Isaac Newton:

  1. “A body at rest will remain at rest until an external force acts upon it.”

  2. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."

This is demonstrated by most modern democracies in what as known as the system of checks and balances; power is distributed in such a way that no one person or body can unilaterally act without the approval of the others. The authors of the U.S. Constitution saw this as unavoidable to prevent tyranny or dictatorship. Of course, it also means fundamental change is very difficult to achieve.

Nothing much happens until one party tries to change something which usually leads to immediate resistance by the opposition. The situation is often the same in organizations. While there is no opposition in the political sense, there are plenty of people who fear they will be negatively affected by change. So, we see that change, particularly fundamental change, is difficult to achieve. Unless, of course, you remember our lesson from Archimedes and create a big enough lever!

We know from Newton that the impulse to change will likely be met with an opposite reaction, otherwise known as resistance. This is normal and, as seen in the concept of checks and balances, an important part of the system! The lever to overcome this resistance can be found in the hard work of seeking dialogue, involving stakeholders and creating a change coalition. Ask yourself: Who are my key stakeholders? Who has the greatest amount of influence? How can I win their support for change?

If you want to change something in your organization, start building your lever today!

Image credit: Flickr/Stefan Jurgensen

Kevin Lawrence is a Managing Director at the Odyssey Group. He specializes in leadership and management development, change, executive team development and organizational development strategy.

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