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Behavior in Motion – Sustaining Change


A recent discussion with a few names you might recognize if you are in the ITSM space started with whether DevOps was sustainable after the consultants went home. Some time ago it occurred to me that Newton’s Laws of Motion seem to apply pretty well to human behavior, so I ventured the following:

“Actually, I think you could state ‘Is anything sustainable without something powering/guiding it in the chosen direction?’ Behavior is a bit like the ‘object in motion’, which tends to stay in motion (a constant velocity) unless acted on by some force. Once acted on, the behavior will accelerate or decelerate in response to the force; so as long as the ‘force’ (or consultant, or management, etc.) is acting, you get a change. Of course, there are many ‘forces’ at work that influence behavior, and which (forces) dominate tend to be fluid and dependent on individuals themselves as well. And of course, have to mention that 3rd law, in which every action produces an equal and opposite reaction – and even if they are stealthy about it, you can be sure there are people finding ways around your chosen direction, no matter how good the business believes it is…”

When that got a thumbs up from a certain IT Skeptic, I knew it must be worth exploring further…

For those of you not familiar with Newtonian mechanics, the ‘laws’ are (from Encyclopædia Britannica, one of many translations of the original 1687 publication, in Latin, of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica):

First Law – if a body is at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, it will remain at rest or keep moving in a straight line at constant speed unless it is acted upon by a force.

Second Law – the time rate of change of the momentum of a body is equal in both magnitude and direction to the force imposed on it.

Third Law – when two bodies interact, they apply forces to one another that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction.

And yes, scientific types, I know this is largely displaced by Special Relativity – but we are talking about behavior here, which moves at far less than light speed, so it’s all good…

Business as usual

The way things operate in many organizations is the essence of the first law; things “that work” tend to stay the same, and things being done tend to be done the same way (by the same people/groups, not so often by the business as a whole). The way people work (because of, or in spite of, any process, rule, or expectation) stays idle or moves steadily in a rather constant direction unless something occurs to push or pull them in another direction.

This is because the business environment – the ‘space’ in which the ‘bodies’ move and interact – allows behavior to establish itself within parameters, good or bad, that are accepted (or can remain undetected). Note, this does not mean that the work is actually being performed the way the business wants it to be, or in the most efficient way, or even in ways that make sense for the business – and many times, all of these and more are in fact the case at any given time. Why? It should not surprise anyone (but likely will) that behavior many times does not follow ‘the rules’ – rather, it follows the desire to accomplish the goals perceived by those doing the work.

Some are now thinking, ‘But shouldn’t those goals be those of the business?’ Of course. But in reality, many at the ‘operational’ level face forces that ‘the Business’ did not consider when rules were written or contracts signed – and these forces often influence the direction and speed of behavior and actions more than procedures, especially if said procedures are perceived to slow or block those goals.

This means that if you expect initiatives, processes, etc. to be effective, their ‘force’ has to be greater than that of any other forces. Put another way, the force of any change you want will have to overcome perceptions, and become culture (which is the right way to overcome the Third Law – more on that later).

Everything in proportion

In general, changes in behavior, like a Newtonian body, are equal in magnitude and direction to the forces that act on that behavior. In business, we typically experience this when someone changes a policy or process or other ‘control’ mechanism intended to move behavior in a desired direction.

A simple example might be a ‘dress code’ update, wherein a decision is made to include “Flip-flops are not acceptable footwear, regardless of where in the company an employee works”. So, people stop wearing flip-flops to work – right? Well, that is certainly the intent – but in reality, there is a strong dependency on the magnitude the business is willing to enforce the decision to sustain the direction.

To continue the analogy, we find at first that flip-flops appear to disappear from the work environment. As time passes, there are rumors that ‘some areas’ are in fact allowing flip-flops, but are calling them sandals. In other areas, ‘exceptions’ have been implemented. The longer these variations are accepted (that is, if the force of the change is not sustained), the more likely it is that people will forget the change was ever made.

Why? Well recall that I began this section with “in general” – this is because while behavior does initially tend to move in the direction intended, there are always other forces also acting on said behavior. Whenever any of those other forces overcomes that of your change, it will push (or pull) behavior accordingly.

This is the challenge that people that want to perform ‘management of change’ enter into when someone decides change is needed. No matter how good the change seems, it will only sustain its direction so long as other forces do not influence it in another direction, which means that any change you make will need to include a ‘sustainability’ element – unless you want everyone wearing flip-flops again…

Resistance is futile (but it will happen anyway!)

The ‘Third Law’ is the one most of you know as ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Now while this law is certainly applicable to human behavior, Newton wrote it for idealized objects – which we are not. Therefore, its effect is not that balanced, and in fact, while there will pretty much certainly be an opposite reaction, it may be anything from hidden in the shadows to overwhelmingly opposite.

For instance, back to the flip-flops. I gave a couple of examples of how ‘other forces’ could alter the direction your change wanted. But there will be people that test your willingness to enforce this change, stealthily (or openly) wearing flip-flops in spite of the decision. Equally possible would be that, say, a manager (or group of managers) decided that flip-flops were integral to success in their areas, and simply told their people to disregard the change in dress code. Many initiatives and projects have doomed themselves to failure by not recognizing that such resistance is not only possible, but likely. Unless you take the time to truly investigate, identify and mitigate it, resistance will occur (and will probably occur regardless, but hopefully to a lesser degree)!

There are many examples of this in the business world, but one of my favorite remains the decision by The Coca-Cola Company to, after 99 years, alter their formula and introduce “New Coke”. The reaction from customers is a perfect example of the ‘overwhelmingly opposite’ force I mentioned earlier (and also shows that you have to be cognizant of both internal and external forces that can influence your intended direction).

As I mentioned above, I believe the best way to overcome resistance (and for your change to become ‘self-sustaining’) is to work to move it from being perceived as a change to being recognized as the right way to do something, making it effectively part of the business culture, which is never truly ‘easy’, but worth doing. Note however that you need to gauge any resistance that occurs and decide if it is worth overcoming – if there is a lot of resistance, it may be the change isn’t really right for your business after all!

Nothing is perfect

Of course, while keeping these concepts in mind, nothing will ensure you will be able to identify or mitigate all the forces that will try to alter the direction your business chooses to move in. There are simply too many variables involved, and even special relativity won’t help us with that. Nonetheless, behavior and the forces that influence it need to be included as a factor in any decision, initiative, or other business venture – behavior is always in motion, and so your business strategies need to be too.

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