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Understanding the Chemistry and Physics of Change: Part 1 – The Physics

Change, what is it? What is its purpose?

Change is not some random event. Change is about status quo. It is the planned movement from the current status quo to some new status quo. Change, like a project, is transitional. It is the transition between two stable status quos, the current and the desired. Since change is not random, it is initiated by someone and affects others. A single change has multiple impacts. It’s not enough to understand just the nature of the change. We also need to understand the nature, target, and consequence of the stakeholder impacts.

There are three key conditions in Change Management that we need to understand and address:

  1. Single changes create multiple stakeholder impacts. A new status quo can lead to stakeholders experiencing one or more of the following consequences:
    1. They can be better off.
    2. They can be worse off.
    3. They can be unaffected.
  2. Stakeholder perception of the impact may be different from the reality. Each stakeholder will respond based on his perception of the project impact. Therefore, it’s critical for the change manager to understand each stakeholder’s perception versus reality.
  3. Stakeholder management and planning must take account of both the reality and the perception, for the change to succeed.

Change Management is a combination of art, practice, and science and it takes all three to get it right. In this first part, we’re going to explore the science aspect, in particular the physics of change. When a change happens, someone or something made it happen. The starting point for change is always the current state, which is subject to the Three Laws of Organization Change. I didn’t invent these laws. Sir Isaac Newton discovered and proved them. They are still valid today.

One of the first principles that came out of TRIZ research (theory of inventive problem solving) is that problems and solutions are repeated across industries and sciences. That means that quite often, a problem in one area has already been solved in a different area. That’s the case with “Change Management.” Sir Isaac Newton formulated and proved the Three Laws of Motion. But they could have been called the Three Laws of Change of Motion because they describe how change is made to happen. I’ve simply taken these three laws and repurposed them for organization change management. But they retain the same power and meaning as the original laws. Let’s review the original laws.

Newton’s Three Laws of “Change of” Motion are:

  1. First Law: A body in motion remains in motion. A body at rest remains at rest. Unless the body in acted on by an unbalanced force.
  2. Second Law: The unbalanced force required to move a body is defined by:
    • Force = Mass X acceleration (F = ma)
  3. Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In every interaction there is a pair of forces.

Newton was a scientist. A scientist seeks to understand “how” something behaves. A philosopher seeks to understand “why.” The “why” is not always available to us.

Three Laws or Organization Change

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Now, let’s restate the laws for our organizational change management world. They explain a lot.
  1. Law of Persistence: A person or process continues its current behaviour (won’t change) until an unbalanced force is applied.
  2. Law of Power: The force required to cause a change depends on two things: the mass of the object (how big the thing is that we’re trying to change), and how fast we need to get to the new state.
    1. Force = how big X how fast
    2. Work = force X how far
  3. Law of Reciprocity: To change something we have to interact with it. Every interaction produces an equal and opposite response.

Implications of the Laws of Change in our Business World

First Law: The Law of Persistence

The status quo is persistent. The first law says that nature favors the status quo. Why? It doesn’t matter why. But for those who can’t rest until they know why, here’s a plausible reason. Nature is efficient. Since the status quo is where we need to be most of the time, nature has made the status quo free. We don’t need to exert any force to stay the course. But, in order for the status quo to be free and sustainable, then change must require force and cost. We get one or the other for free, not both. Nature has made a wise choice.

The world we know would not be possible without this law. Take baseball, for example. When the pitcher throws the ball, he’s applying a force to the ball while the ball is in his hands. As his arm moves through the air with the ball in his hand, he’s accelerating the ball. At some point he let’s go of the ball, removing the force. The ball is now on its own. If the first law didn’t exist, the ball would immediately fall, since the force is gone. Instead the ball continues its motion, even though there is no longer any force acting on it. It continues its journey to the batter. The batter then wants to change the motion of the ball, so he needs to apply a force to it. He does this with his swinging bat. The ball accelerates in the direction of the force of the bat until it leaves the bat. Again, if the first law didn’t exist, the ball would fall to the ground as soon as the bat lost contact.

Same deal in football or any other sport. Once the football leaves the quarterback’s hand, there is no force. Yet the ball continues in flight. Without the first law, it would immediately fall to the ground. It’s the same in our business world. Once we’ve established a way of doing things through training and coaching, we can leave it alone and it should faithfully continue to operate in the same way. We can expect that people and processes will behave today as they did yesterday. That allows us to focus on the things we need to change. Our world is stable, predictable. Imagine someone came along and tried to get our people to change their ways and that the first law didn’t exist. That person would have an easy time changing the team’s behaviour. We’d have to spend all our time making sure that didn’t happen. Fortunately that’s not the case. Change requires force, time and energy, so it isn’t easy for anyone to change our team’s behaviour. Of course, that means that if we want to deploy a change, we have to revert to using a force as well. We can’t have stability for free and change for free. We have to pay for on, and that one is “the change”.

But how much force is required for a particular change? That depends. The second law explains.

Second Law: The Law of Power

If we want to move a 20 tons truck we need a bigger force than moving a tricycle. Why? The truck is bigger. It has more mass. The greater the mass, the greater the force required. That seems pretty intuitive. If we don’t have enough force (not strong enough), the second law says, “Don’t waste your time trying.” We’re simply going to waste our energy.

In addition to force, there is another consideration, “How far do we want to move the truck?” This is a second component to the second law. Even if we are strong enough to move it, can we move it all the way to where we want? Moving an object a certain distance is work. Work = force X distance (how far). Even if we’re strong enough to get it started, do we have enough energy to exert that force over the distance required? If we don’t, then we shouldn’t bother trying, especially if we’re moving the truck up an incline. As soon as we run out of energy and stop pushing, the truck will roll back down to its previous state. Sound familiar? In an organization all changes should be considered uphill. Many changes are not sustained for that reason.

What does this mean for our business projects? If we are introducing a change that impacts 100 people, we need a larger force than the same change to 10 people. A change that impacts 10 powerful people will require greater force than one impacting 10 not-so-powerful people. One hundred people represent a bigger mass than ten people. So we need a larger force. If our change is small, then that’s like pushing the truck a small distance. If the change is big, then that’s like pushing the truck a longer distance. Our project requires enough clout (force) to impact our mass, and enough resources (energy) to move that mass to the new desired status quo.

Third Law: The Law of Reciprocity

The first two laws say that people and processes don’t naturally resist, they persist. Imagine you’re wearing very slippery skates on an ice ring. Imagine to you walk up to someone from behind, so that they don’t see you and don’t have time to react. You push the other person, who is also on skates. Who will move? Of course, you will both move. But has the other person deliberately pushed you? No, they haven’t. The third law says that force is an interaction. Force always occurs in pairs. So when you apply a force to a body, then the other body unwittingly applies an equal force to you as well. That’s not resistance you’re feeling. That’s persistence.

Now imagine the other person was facing you and just as you push them, they dig their skate tip in the ice and push back. Now you’d be experiencing two forces; you pushing him, and him pushing back. That would be resistance.

When we try to change something, it will always reciprocate. That’s nature telling us that change is not free. The third implies that tiny changes may be easy while large changes will be difficult, regardless of any overt resistance that may be offered for other reasons. Resistance is not the third law. It is another unbalanced force coming from someone else trying to make a change of their own. When there is resistance, there are at least two forces coming from two different sources.

Why is change difficult? How difficult is it? It is difficult so that stability can be easy. The level of difficulty will depend on the mass we’re trying to impact and how quickly we’re trying to impact it.

People don’t naturally resist change. They persist in status quo behaviour according to the laws of nature. If you ask someone “Why do you do things that way?” and they respond, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” don’t laugh, thinking that’s a poor reason. Not only is it a good reason, it’s the law.

Next Instalment
In our second instalment, we’ll examine the impact of the three laws on program and project management. We’ll explore the chemistry of change and where Change Management best fits in a project: who should be accountable for change, and how it relates to stakeholder value management?

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