Masters of change like Martin Luther King, Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela understood that vision alone is rarely enough. Real change masters leverage the physics of change to bring about transformation.
Newton’s First Law: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalancing force.
In other words, you might think your vision is a good idea, but unless it is strong enough to unbalance the status quo, nothing will happen. Too many dreams are never put into action because they are not grounded in reality. This is true for organizations as well as individuals.
If you want to change direction, envision an attractive future that resonates with the hopes and dreams of everyone involved. And also take a hard look at the unvarnished truth of your current situation. Describing both your vision and your current reality creates the sense of urgency needed to unbalance the status quo and propel the change.
To be credible, you must articulate a truth that people already sense or that is verifiable. Creating a false sense of urgency will backfire as people will lose trust in your leadership.
Newton’s Second Law: The larger the object, the greater the force needed to accelerate it.
It’s hard for one person to change. It’s harder for two people to change their relationship. And it’s even harder to change a large organization. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but more is involved and it takes longer.
John Kotter describes 8 steps that need to be taken to transform an organization in his classic Harvard Business Review article “Why Transformation Efforts Fail.”
Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite opposing action.
The harder you push for change, the stronger the opposing forces become. Instead of trying muscle change, take a lesson from Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis and also consider ways to diminish your restrainers. Or better yet, find ways to turn restraining forces into driving forces.
And take a lesson from Aikido on redirecting the momentum of the opposing force. Be flexible and go with the energy instead of fighting it, but steer it in the direction you want. Check out Aikido master Tom Crum’s video of Aikido in the Workplace and in his Harvard Business Review article, “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Physics of Change
An unbalancing force occurs from the tension generated when enough people realize that the current situation is no longer tenable and also believe in the possibility of a more desirable place to move toward.
In this except of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you can see how he generates tension by contrasting powerful pictures of a desirable future (in blue) with the unvarnished truth of the current reality (in red).
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”–one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…. we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day and.…. we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
People struggle to overcome the negative or opposing situation by resisting it and fail . If you use these opposing forces to your advantage you will be able deal with it and succeed.
Indeed. Struggling to overcome an opposing force eventually wears you out in the long term. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Prasanna.
The contrast in imagery in Dr.King’s speech is striking. I always thought of it as an inspiring dream and wasn’t aware of how provocative his description of the current situation was. Thanks for showing what makes it such a powerful dream.
And although the dream still guides and inspires many of us today, sadly we are not as close to achieving it as we had hoped. Hopefully the #blacklivesmatter movement will continue to raise consciousness and we can find ways to avoid increasing the opposing the forces.
Again a great post. I appreciate it more then the article of John Kotter you are referring to. Maybe it is only because 3 laws are more comprehensive then 8 steps :-).
Anyway : if there must be an inspiring and honest personal vision to give change it’s meaning, there is the next significant phase of acknowledgement of this vision, and whereby this vision is accepted as a call for as well a social as a personal individual action by the listener, called “interiorization”. Food for another great article?
Thanks for your food for thought, Michel, and your description of the process of birthing a vision and bringing it to life. You remind me of Terry Fox, a young man who had lost a leg to cancer who had a vision to run across Canada to raise money for cancer in 1975. It’s a wonderful story and if you’re not familiar with you, you might enjoy reading about it: https://seapointcenter.com/when-thrown-off-course/
Not only will the group supportive of the current status react when an opposing vision leads to a force for change, much if not most of the time, that force is present, meaning no status quo but an expanding, growing movement. Another problem people seeking a change make is to try only to counteract that force – to end the current unwanted effort. As you point out so clearly, seeking to oppose / end an effort is much harder to do than to gain support for a change that makes sense through a well-considered vision. BUT that reinforcement of the current status is there, meaning the force for change must be even more robust!!! Sadly, for me at least, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” or “There’s nothing I can do to challenge ‘those’ people” are indicators of a (maybe small) force that is pushing the status quo, one that must be overcome.
An excellent description of how opposing forces arise. When we see them as a natural response, we are better able to address them intelligently rather than trying to fight them head on and ending up with locked horns.
What a thoughtful and provocative post for this holiday celebrating MLK. What is particularly clear is that a compelling vision that gets action clearly paints a picture in simple, straight-forward terms. I now realize this is what is lacking in all the candidates running for president: not one of them can show a compelling picture of an imagined future. In fact, there is no vision!! How depressing.
Thank you for sharing this about the candidates for President! You’re so clearly correct! They are all just running on about how bad the others are. And, really sadly, I can’t imagine any of them reaching across party / ideology lines to really address our many important issues… I’ve often expressed my honest belief that we need a Constitutional amendment requiring an additional provision that all parties in Congress to support all bills at least by 25% of their membership in order to have the bill go to the President for consideration.
Thanks, John Bennett. Truly a sad time in or country. Where is a leader with VISION!!! Maybe we should elect Jesse.
It’s hard to say much about the current political scene in the US. We are lacking collective memory of what unifies us, and therefore are dominated by factions with conflicting micro-visions. Much thanks for your kind vote of confidence, Eileen and John!
Great post Jesse, and a topic tied closely with my own work and research. An awareness that change is a constant, allows us to learn how to create the change we want to experience. I really enjoyed the Akido clip with Tom Crum.
Very appreciative of your work,
More physics – the laws of thermodynamics. There is a constant natural movement toward entropy and therefore, as you said, “Change is constant.” Much thanks for your insights, Carl
Hi Ms. Stoner,
Dreams are wonderful to have and we should all dream them. Many times we are told our dreams or visions are foolish and impossible to reach but how will we know if we do not take the actions needed to realize the dream.
Give me a dream not grounded in reality and the drive to pursue it over no dream at all any day. I may be a fool but I would rather chase a shadow than not be in the race at all.
Lovely thoughts, Barry. Thanks for sharing them. I support your sentiments wholeheartedly. Without dreams, we have no hope. You might enjoy my post dig below your dreams to discover your vision.
Good article and great angle! But you got the Second Law wrong:
The Second Law indicates that thermodynamic processes, i.e., processes that involve the transfer or conversion of heat energy, are irreversible because they all result in an increase in entropy.
Great to hear from you, Gil. I’m not sure which law you’re referring to. The three laws I referred to in the article are Newton’s laws of motion. Are you referring to those laws? or the law of thermodynamics that I mentioned in my comment to Carl?
Oops. Yeah. Doh. Laws of motion not thermodynamics. I guess I had thermodynamics of my mind, from the natural step workshop I led last week. Never mind! 😉
Great way of corelating change management with these laws. Have experienced it, larger the organization and older the culture is, its tough to drive the change.
It’s interesting how the principles of social systems correlate with the laws of nature.
Thanks for this post, Jesse. I love the physics metaphors, and. . .
The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Over time closed systems tend to dissipate. Entropy sets in and stuff “winds down.” But we know that over time, human systems have a tendency to shed some energy and structure, while also (re)organizing to higher levels of complexity and capacity. Do we somehow “violate the Second Law?” My answer is that we are not “closed systems,” and that transmitted thought- our stories and ideas – are the energy that keeps us living, learning, and evolving.
And. . .
The Newtonian worldview was rocked by the discoveries of Quantum Physics. The elegantly-termed “spooky action at a distance” in which sub-atomic particles are in relationship, and respond instantly to a change in their partner, even when far away. This is the world we humans inhabit as well. Constantly affecting, and being affected by, the thoughts and actions of everyone else.
In the end, it seems to be a “both. . . And. . . ” world.
Ah, very good and thought-provoking -> “transmitted thought- our stories and ideas – are the energy that keeps us living, learning, and evolving.”
I find the intersection of disciplines fascinating. One of my favorite books, The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, hypothesizes that these intersections can be translated into a common language. Regarding Newtonian and Quantum Physics – until a unifying theory is revealed, it will remain a “both.. and” world. And perhaps beyond, because my guess is it will be a “both..and” theory.
Echoing Bruce, above, I too was struck with the thought that Newton’s three laws of motion do an excellent job of explaining daily (physics) experiences. And they have been augmented by Einstein’s laws of special (and general) relativity which invites expanding the metaphor. For instance, how the laws apply in a frame of reference that is in motion relative to various observers, how time dilation occurs for an observer accelerating near light speed, seem to suggest analogues for the contemporary business world.
The other thought that occurs to me is how principles of complexity can be your friend when considering change in the context of a complex, adaptive system like an organization in its business ecology. Newton’s second and third laws applied to business change are often daunting; approaching with a complexity and emergence mindset helps to overcome the inertia! 😉
Thank you, as always, for inspiring great thought.
Lots of great thoughts here. Totally agree with your thoughts on the principles of complexity. And I agree that with a Newtonian view, we miss the opportunity for expanded awareness. But I just couldn’t resist the temptation for this piece. It was such a great fit. I think the issue is whether a particular theory supports what you are trying to explain or whether it is a “force fit.” What comes to mind is a variation of the famous George Box quote “All theories are wrong, but some are useful.” Much thanks, Mark, for enriching the conversation!