While it sounds contradictory, change is a constant. Being in a state of flux is simply a fact of life. We all grow up and grow old. The seasons come and go. New knowledge breeds new technologies, techniques and products that transform the way we connect, communicate, cure disease and conduct business.
That doesn’t mean change is easy.
Though it is inevitable and imperative, some laws of nature conspire against change. In the physical world, change can’t happen without the intervention of some external force. Sir Isaac Newton investigated and explained this truth with his laws of motion, first published in the 17th century.
Take inertia, for example. Newton noticed that a body at rest tends to stay at rest. One definition in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary describes inertia as the “indisposition to motion, exertion or change.” That may sound more like your teenage son than a scientific principle. But all it means is, if you’re standing still or accepting the status quo, movement in any direction may be difficult.
Momentum is the opposite effect, but operates in a similar manner. Anyone who ever had a traffic accident knows momentum is demonstrated when a moving object resists coming to a stop. Newton observed that once an object gets going — unless it is influenced by an opposite force — its forward motion appears to gain in strength. In other words, if you’re hurtling along in the wrong direction, it can take a Herculean effort to apply the brakes and come to a halt.
Newton also demonstrated that even trying to make a subtle turn toward a different destination doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Think about diverting a river. Without applying some kind of shifting force or obstacle, moving objects — and people — will keep making a beeline for wherever they were headed when they first started out.
Given the hard physics involved, it is little wonder the prospect of making even basic changes — starting, stopping or making a turn — causes consternation, fear and resistance. Add in softer yet equally important factors that can influence transformation, like understanding, motivation and means, and the challenge to change becomes even more daunting. Change takes work, especially at work.
The modern business world is a maelstrom of change. With the recent recession and subsequent sluggish recovery, the urgency of change within organizations is not only ubiquitous, it’s deeper than ever. Workforce reductions, limited resources, streamlined processes and the rise of unique competitive pressures profoundly impact every area of business. Nothing is immune — from the core products and services offered to the people who produce them and, ultimately, the profit the enterprise returns.
As a result, more business leaders are re-evaluating their organizational structures and adjusting their strategic plans. Faced with issues like inertia or unproductive momentum, they must make sweeping changes to achieve required business outcomes.
Worse, according to change management expert and author Rick Maurer, nearly 70 percent of the changes these leaders attempt will fail. One of the biggest reasons is the workforce will not receive the preparation or support needed. While the organizations’ leaders may have initiated new policies or introduced new processes, they did not exert the influence necessary to get people ready, willing and able to function in the new organizational state.
Newton probably would have said these leaders did not apply the right kind of force at the right point to make the desired change possible.
But it isn’t rocket science, or even elementary physics, and we don’t need Sir Isaac to tell us what we already know. Learning and development represents the critical external force that makes change not only achievable but successful within an enterprise. It is the impetus to get moving. It is the braking system for behaviors that negatively impact performance. It is the mechanism that allows a company to make a right turn in a more strategic direction.
Whether your learning organization is charged with training internal change managers or functions as an integral part of the organization’s change management process, it is your job to make sure your company has the right talent with the right capabilities to adapt with agility. I think Newton would agree it is the one law of motion that truly governs the success or failure of living, breathing business organisms facing the challenge of change in the 21st century.
Editor in Chief