The Physics of Change

You can learn a lot about change by observing nature. As physical beings, we behave in much the same way as the rest of the physical universe. Take the three laws of motion, for instance. Newton showed how an object at rest (in the case of this post, a person) tends to stay at rest unless put into motion by some external force. Translating that to change dynamics, people tend to do what they have always done unless something pushes them to change.

Newton’s second law further describes the force, saying it is the product of mass (the importance of the change itself) and acceleration (the speed of change). When a big change happens over a long period of time, it is not as impactful as when it happens over a shorter span.

Then there’s Newton’s third law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This means that every change will be met with an inverse response of the same intensity. As a psychologist, I often judge the state of the change a client is making by how much pushback he/she gets from their surrounding system.

The laws of motion do not characterize change in its entirety, however. In fact, we can learn a lot from fluid dynamics.

I’ve spent many wonderful days, weekends and trips shooting rapids on some of the greatest rivers on Earth. Kayakers know that not all the water contained in a river flows at the same rate. The sides of a river, even in turbulent rapids, flow more slowly than the center. This is called drag—the riverbanks actually slow the current. So what does this have to do with change? Well, people directly involved with a change initiative move far faster than those on the sidelines. That’s why it’s important to pull everyone into the swift water in order for change to be fully implemented.

When water drops drastically in elevation, the rapids that are formed create two issues: a haystack, which is that big swell that looks like a backward wave at the bottom of the rapids, and back eddies, which are reverse currents alongside rapids that actually flow upstream—the bigger the rapids, the bigger the back eddy. Change, like rapids, often has swells and haystacks. In the workplace, this might come in the form of backlash (equal and opposite reactions) or water-cooler talk (intense activity on the sidelines) or blatant disregard (people with wait-and-see or it’ll-never-work attitudes).

Change flows like water. Change follows the laws of physics. Change is a phenomenon to which we react in accordance with the patterns of nature. If we pay attention to these patterns, we just might be able to navigate more effectively the next time we embark on a change initiative. By understanding that the human response to change is natural and oftentimes predictable, we are less likely to by foiled or knocked off course by the physics of it all.

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