A Change Leader’s Job is to Break the Law: 4 forces you need to contemplate from a balcony

As the Change Cultivators team has sought to understand and communicate the art and science of change leadership over the last two pivotal years in world history, we have held strategic conversations with top change leaders from across the globe. What has repeatedly emerged is that those who are thriving in this new business era are those who have deliberately nurtured a peaceful and positive relationship with flux and change; those who have embraced change as a MINDSET rather than a DESTINATION. In fact, the inspirational Cassandra Worthy has gone so far as to build her brand on the foundation stone of what she has dubbed “Change Enthusiasm”.

However, the pervasive mystery that hangs in the air across human society is this: we agree that change is inevitable, and often even good; we acknowledge that the natural realm that we inhabit is constantly dynamic and we celebrate this; we strive after progress and desire better technology…and yet…when confronted with the need to change ourselves or our systems, we so often shudder, stumble, falter and fail. Why?

This has been probed by many psychologists and social theorists. A quick Google search will overwhelm you with the breadth of work that has been done on change reticence, -avoidance, and   -resistance. This short blog post is not about adding to that. Rather, we would like to start a conversation about a phenomenon that perhaps not everyone has considered.

The Laws of Human and Business Inertia

In 2011, psychologist Jim Taylor played with the phrasing of Newton’s First Law of Motion and coined his “First Law of Human Inertia” which he defined as follows: “The tendency of people, having once established a life trajectory, to continue on that course unless acted on by a greater force”. He identified four forces that tend to determine the direction of individual lives:

  • Needs (a human being’s driving needs to trust they are loved, to feel safe, and to believe they are competent),
  • Self-esteem (the degree to which a person trusts in their own inherent value and capabilities as opposed to constantly seeking affirmation from others),
  • Ownership (the degree to which a person understands themself as an independent being in a cause-and-effect relationship with the world whereby their actions matter and have consequences for which they are responsible), and
  • Emotions (a person’s ability to identify, understand and express their emotions in a healthy way). 

In his article about these forces he said, “The good news is that if we are aware of the four forces and understand them, we can take control of them and, in turn, our lives.”

Because companies are comprised of people, it seems a reasonable leap to think that there is also likely to be a law at play that one could call “The First Law of Business Inertia” whereby there is “a tendency of companies, having once established a trajectory, to continue on that course unless acted on by a greater force”

Our experience suggests that such a “law” could indeed be at work. If this is true, then what are the main forces that are likely to have determined the trajectory that any business finds itself on? This is worthy of a conversation in the change leadership community. We would like to start the ball rolling by identifying these as likely suspects:

  1. Legacy systems – Legacy systems are outmoded technologies or processes that are kept on in businesses because of how daunting and expensive it seems to replace them. They hamper transformation on every level and ultimately grind progress and growth into the ground. The degree to which a company is beholden unto any such systems will determine its trajectory and its capacity for growth. 
  2. Culture – Evan Tarver of Investopedia neatly defines corporate culture as “the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact”. This has to be one of the most potent trajectory-determining forces out there! A toxic corporate culture will sink even the most impressive corporate vessel…Cultivating a healthy, vibrant, inclusive, supportive, innovative, resilient, agile corporate culture is the holy grail of change leadership. So many of the guests on the Change Cultivators podcast have spoken about this, amongst them Vinod Kumar, Rob Floyd, Patti Sanchez, Shola Kaye, Julie Hruska, Mike Sharman, Mehul Kapadia, Sophie La Ray, Duncan Wardle and Leo Chan. 
  3. Mission and Vision – The degree to which a company’s mission statement is clear and well-communicated to the whole organization, as well as the degree to which an inspiring, realistic and attainable vision for that company’s future has been conceptualized by its leaders and adopted by every person across the breadth of the organization will be a potent determinant of that business’s trajectory. 
  4. Ownership – In this context, we are referring to ownership on two levels. Firstly, the literal matter of who owns and controls a company will determine its trajectory and ability to transform. The degree to which power is distributed across a company as opposed to centralized in one ivory tower office has a significant effect on its trajectory. But also, secondly, “ownership” refers to the sense of empowered participation that each member of an organization experiences whilst in its employ (this, of course, is inextricably linked with the culture of the organization).


Break the Law of Inertia

As a leader, standing on a balcony (as futurist Graeme Codrington puts it) and reflecting on how these forces are defining your company’s trajectory and likely becoming barriers to change (as Patrick Fitzmaurice and his team at Caterpillar Farm Inc. put it) could also, as Jim Taylor said, “help you to take control of them” and steer your company to new horizons. 

Of course, at this juncture in history, we find ourselves in a counterintuitively privileged position. The law of inertia states that a trajectory will be maintained unless acted on by a greater force. It is hard to imagine a force greater than a global pandemic with all its radical and pervasive aftershocks. If we quickly and cleverly harness the momentum of this disruption, we can wrangle with the forces identified above and redefine suboptimal trajectories going into the future.

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As the producer of the Change Cultivators podcast, I invite you to listen to our co-hosts, Rozzyn Boy and Patrick Fitzmaurice, chat to many amazing change leaders from across the globe on any of your favorite podcast platforms – including Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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