Two ways to drive change…

Recently while running, I thought about the different ways change can happen. I’ve been involved in quite a few discussions and events involving change lately. Change on a personal level, change in business terms, change in general. None of those events were related, but somehow it felt like they were all handled alike.

So, the thoughts circulated my mind about the patterns behind the changes I’ve witnessed lately and as I ran along, all the change events were lining up in between two extremes of how change was driven.

Nerd alert

Before I go on, you must know that I am a physicist. And being a physicist often comes with a certain disposition to picture the world in scientific, technical terms. And in this case as I juggled the words “change” and “drive” around in my head, I started to think of a set of fundamental physical principles telling us quite a lot about “change”: Newton’s laws of motion.

In short, those three physical laws simply state that

…an object will either be at rest or keep a constant velocity until it experiences a force

…the mass of an object defines how much force is needed to change its current state of motion.

…if you apply force to an object in one direction, you will receive the same amount of force from the object in the opposite direction.

Loosely applied to our topic of “driving change” this means that

…change is not going to happen on its own.

…the more you intend to change, the more effort it will take.

…when driving change, be prepared to receive push back

This sounds far-fetched? Well, it’s getting better! Let me explain…

When I think of Newton’s laws of motion, I think of rocket ships moving through the vacuum of space. When thinking of space travel, Newton’s laws become very obvious.

If you’re interested in space travel – and, being a nerdy physicist, I am – you know that there are limited possibilities to drive a ship through space. If you leave aside the more esoteric means of space drives, like warping space-time or creating wormholes, you’ll always end up with more or less sophisticated ways of pushing. And there are two extreme ways of changing a space ship’s motion …

Breaking change

Breaking change happens, when you apply large amounts of force in a small amount of time. For space ship enthusiasts the analogy would be the Orion drive: Moving through space by riding the wave of a series of (nuclear) explosions. Sounds dangerous, right?
And, well, in most cases, have a devastating effect on the vehicle and on the environment.

As you can see for yourself when watching daily news, the consequences of trying to introduce breaking change in a relationship, a community or at work  are often equally disastrous.
This leaves us with the other extreme of driving change:

Incremental change

Incremental change happens when you apply a small amount of force over a large amount of time. In our space ship analogy, imagine a stream of gas or ions being ejected from your ship. The effects may be subtle, but can be managed well. And the effects of a large amount of small particles can – if well-managed – be combined to account for a fairly large amount of force.

Applied to our personal or economic lives, incremental change is the favorable thing to do.

So, here’s what I’m trying to remember the next time, I hit a (metaphorical) road bump, i.e. a crappy process, a disappointing situation or stubborn co-worker: I’ll try to think of ways to change things incrementally and subtly.

It may take longer and may require patience, but I’m convinced that it’s incremental change – a large amount of subtle changes over a long period of time – that will drive the big and good decisions in our future world.