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  • Writer's pictureOliver Nowak

Humanising the Physics of Change

Human beings are very often resistant to change, but to understand why we first need to understand the principle of change in the first place.

In the science world, to understand complex scenarios we rely on controlled environments in which we can apply certain simplifications to help us isolate the effect we’re interested in. This got me thinking, there is a lot we can take from the science world to understand the world of change for human beings. The science of change is complicated so can we apply what we know already to help us simplify it?

When I first started thinking of an analogy for change, the idea of motion really resonated. Have you ever tried moving a heavy object and realised it takes less effort to make it go faster when it is already moving than when it is stationary? In many ways I realised that there are parallels to change. It’s a lot easier to find the motivation to go to the gym if it’s already built into our daily routine than if it isn’t. Given these parallels I thought: maybe the same laws that govern motion might also be translatable to change?

In physics, the force resisting motion is called friction, and it comes in many forms. Simply put, the reason a stationary object is harder to move than a moving object is that static friction is greater than sliding friction. I won’t go into any great detail but essentially it’s to do with the strength of the forces between the particles, the bond between the particles in the object and in the surface is greater when the object is stationary than when it is moving. Seems logical right?

The same principle can be applied to change, whenever we try applying change in our businesses it’s going to cause some sort of friction somewhere, somehow. However, it’s much harder to apply change in a business that isn’t used to any change than in a business that is. It’s the difference between static and sliding friction.

So, if we’re stationary, and we’re facing a huge amount of friction. How do we get started? Or, how does a business that has never attempted digital transformation before start now?

To answer this, again I dip into physics and look at Newton’s Laws of Motion. Newton’s first law is as follows: if an object is at rest or moving at a constant speed it will remain at rest or continue moving at the same speed unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. So, in our business, unless we apply change, an unbalanced force to change the status quo, that status quo will prevail.

So how do we go about producing this unbalanced force?

For this, we need Newton’s second law of motion, the equation that explains the changes a force produces on a body in motion. Notice the word change in there. Newton’s second law is as follows:

Force = Mass x Acceleration.

Or rewritten in human terms:

Change = Ability x Intention

How does this translate?

An object’s mass is the amount of ‘stuff’ it’s made out of, that’s not going to change so we can take that as a given. A company’s ability to digitally transform can be taken in the same way. The likes of Netflix, a company in the technology sector producing a digital platform, is going to be much more digitally able than a large, cumbersome, non-technological organisation that’s been around for decades. There’s nothing you can do about it, so again we can take it as a given.

As a result, it’s fair to say that our law dictates, to get the same amount of change, or in this case digital transformation, an organisation with a lower ability must make up for it in intention. However, can we confidently say that we can see that across the business world today?

The fact is, I see the opposite. Those with little ability use that as justification for a lack of intent. However, it’s clear to see from Newton’s first law of motion that those unwilling to drive change will just end up standing still and falling behind. In my opinion, the problem is that many organisations are completely stationary so that the amount of static friction they’re feeling is simply too much to get off the mark. However, they never considered that having overcome that initial hurdle, the size of the push required to keep going afterwards might not have to be as high.

So I challenge you to think about this: If you knew change was easier to achieve if you were already moving, would that be enough to inspire you to overcome inertia today?

What it all comes down to is this, resistance to change is built into the very fabric of the universe. But the point is, if you have already built up even a small amount of momentum, it requires a lot less effort to keep driving change than if you were stood still.

However, these laws also throw up some critical warnings that are essential to success:

  • To get the greatest effect, make sure you’re moving in the right direction first

  • The more momentum you lose, the greater the effort to get back up to speed

  • Friction is ever-present regardless of speed, so even to stay in equilibrium, you’re always going to have to keep pushing.

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