Change Management Principles:
The Three Laws

Newton's three laws give deep insights into how to lead and manage our change programs successfully.


Newton and the Three Laws

Change programs that succeed adhere to certain enduring principles of effective change management. Organizations that act in accordance with these change management principles are more likely to see their efforts result in real organizational benefits. Here are three principles that have well stood the test of time.

Isaac Newton was a giant in the field of physics. We can all remember him from our school days as the genius that discovered the law of gravity. The picture of an apple falling from an apple tree on to Newton's head is etched indelibly on our minds.

Newton is also famous for his three Laws of Motion. The formulation of these three laws was the largest single scientific advancement since the days of Aristotle, some two thousand years previous. Newton's laws of motion apply to physical entities operating in space and describe how they interact at the most fundamental level. However, they can just as easily be applied to human entities interacting in an environment of workplace change.

First Law of Change Management

Newton's First Law of Motion states that an object will remain at rest or in perpetual motion until an unbalanced force acts upon it. Think of your organizational change program for a moment as the object in Isaac Newton's First Law. Once your change initiative gets going, think about what will keep the program moving towards your goal.

As with the object in Newton's Law, your change program will need a force to get it going and will need a force to move it to each new level. Also, given the natural inertia in organizations, if the driving forces dissipate, like a rolling stone the program will eventually come to a halt.

Just as with Newton's First Law, the force must be immediate for your program to progress. A potential force that will provide an impetus in the future is of no use in the present. What is the immediate force that will get your people moving and what are the forces that will keep them moving? For some, discussing with them the forces for change may compel them to follow and support you. You could point to:

  • legislative changes such as corporate governance, occupational health and safety, and risk management
  • competitor activity such as new entrants and decreasing market share
  • financial results such as profit and loss and share price
  • quality indicators such as defects and delivery to commit
  • customer feedback from surveys, mystery shopper, focus groups and field reports
  • employee satisfaction survey results
  • benchmarking comparison results

You could also highlight the impact of not changing. Impacts that you could discuss may include:

  • loss of market share
  • fines or jail sentences for non-compliance or personal injury
  • tarnished business reputation
  • increased rate of customer complaints
  • loss of key staff

Whatever the forces for change, make sure that the forces are applied to the people needed to bring about the change by communicating often and using a variety of methods.

Second Law of Change Management

As you think about what strategies you will use to keep the momentum going in the new operational environment, a lesson may be drawn from Newton's Second Law of Motion. Newton's Second Law states that the rate of change in motion of an object is proportional to the force acting upon it and inversely proportional to its mass. Consider the object as being the people working in the new organization and the force to keep them moving in the right direction as the various practical techniques discussed in our book, Managing Change in the Workplace.

Your practical techniques could include:

  • aligning systems of reward and recognition
  • feeding back performance results to employees
  • achieving some quick wins
  • celebrating achievements
  • creating meaning through introducing symbols of the new culture
  • ensuring managers walk the talk
  • operationalizing the change
  • aligning recruitment and selection criteria

Newton's principle is telling us that the greater the mass (that is, the more pronounced the resistance to change), the more diligently you will need to apply the techniques (that is, increase the strength of the force). Think about and record what concrete steps you will take to institutionalize the change and who will be responsible for each action.

Third Law of Change Management

The final lesson on managing change comes from Newton's Third Law. Newton's Third Law states that every action is met with an equal and opposite reaction. What the principle teaches us is that if you confront resisters of change with shouting, lies, mistrust, sarcasm or apathy, you will be confronted with shouting, lies, mistrust, sarcasm and apathy in return. On the other hand, if you treat resisters with respect, acknowledge their feelings and listen genuinely to their concerns, you will be met in kind. How can you apply this principle? Things to consider include:

  1. Communicate openly and often with employees and other change stakeholders, and without using commercial confidence as an excuse to not communicate.
  2. Meet resisters face to face whenever possible.
  3. Point out unacceptable behavior without resorting to character assassination, sarcasm and other methods that serve to attack people's sense of self-esteem.
  4. Keep your commitments in order to build trust and respect. Trust can be lost in an instant and take years to regain.
  5. Don't shy away from bad news. Tell people candidly but sensitively.
  6. Choose people for key positions that have well developed interpersonal skills.

Putting the Three Laws of Change Management™ Together

From Newton's three laws, effective organizational change managers draw three very important change management principles and apply them in practice. We can summarize these Three Laws of Change Management™ as:

First Law:
Overcoming the natural inertia in organizations requires the constant application of the forces for change.
Second Law:
The greater the inertia or resistance to change, the greater the required forces for change.
Third Law:
The way that change agents treat resisters is the way that resisters will treat change agents.

How are you applying the Three Laws of Change Management™ to your change initiative? What are you and your team learning along the way?

Expert View Author: AIMM MAITD

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Find out more about how to apply the essential principles of change management to your change initiative. Check out our comprehensive resource kit, packed with practical strategies and exercises designed to lead you and your team through the change management maze.

Managing Change in the Workplace

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