“We’ve Always Done It That Way” and the Organizational Momentum Trap

Newton’s First Law of Motion states that “every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”

Now, the majority of us have probably heard that, in one form or another, during our time in primary school. It’s usually stated in a simplified version of “bodies at rest tend to stay at rest and bodies in motion tend to stay in motion” but that last part is incredibly important – “unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”

It makes sense in physical settings. If you roll a ball, it keeps rolling until it either hits something that makes it stop or friction causes it to slow to the point that it doesn’t move anymore. Both of those two things are outside forces.

The thing is that it doesn’t just apply to a rolling ball. The same reasoning can be applied to organizations too. It boils down to a very simple statement that most of us will probably hear at some point in our careers when we ask why something is the way it is in an organization (company, group of people, etc):

“We’ve always done it that way.”

We do things that way because that’s the way things are done. They were done that way when we joined and since we don’t want to rock the boat, we keep doing them that way.

Holy shit. Newton’s First Law of Motion describes Organizational Momentum just as well as it describes large-body physics!

There’s just one hangup – The last part of the First Law – “unless it is compelled to change…”

This is where the First Law breaks down with regard to organizations. The ball we rolled doesn’t actively resist the outside force but organizations often do. The ball just changes angular momentum to whatever degree the outside force compels it to based on its own mass, etc. People and organizations, on the other hand, will actively work against change in a lot of instances.

If you’ve ever joined a company and found yourself in a situation where things were dysfunctional to the point that it was amazing anything got done at all, and then tried to improve things only to be met with resistance from all sides, you’ve experienced this firsthand.

Implementing change is hard. Implementing small changes on a team as an individual contributor is difficult. Implementing changes at the division or company level can be almost impossible even for executives.

“Can’t they see that things are broken? Things would be so much better if we changed this thing!” you say.

And the answer is that, yes, some of the people in question see that things are broken. A few of them may even have the desire to see things change (though good luck in getting them to say it out loud in a group setting).

As it turns out, we’ve known the reason why this happens for quite a long time.

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

There’s a reason that Machiavelli is more well-known for his writing on political thought than he is for his works of poetry or his treatise on the art of war (don’t get me started on that one). He has people pretty well pegged when it comes to group dynamics and organizational momentum.

Like it or hate it, but it’s true. And a lot of it is just as applicable now as it was when he wrote it in 1513. You’ll find similar examples in a lot of classical writings from different cultures, so he wasn’t the only one with access to this truth about politics and group dynamics. He’s just the one that most people in western countries are familiar with (or have at least heard of).

Organizations resist change because some of the people do well under the current order (and would like to keep doing well, thank you very much) and most of the others don’t want to rock the boat because they know how risky it is.

Yes, it’s great if you pull it off, but if you don’t… well, there’s a good chance that you should update your resume.

So, if that’s the case and we still want to affect change, what can we do?

At an executive level, when a new CEO comes in, you’ll notice that they often start to replace upper management and even the rest of the C-suite. Part of that is because they know that this problem exists, and will actively work to bring in people that they know they get along with because they’ve worked with them in the past.

Now, that may be good or bad, depending on the situation. After all, they’ll probably try the same strategy and tactics that they’ve tried in previous organizations, and that may not be helpful in the organization they’re running now. However, that’s how a lot of things at higher levels frequently play out.

Assuming that you’re not an executive, the answer is going to involve more finesse than force.

First, don’t make a move immediately. Take some time to see what the landscape is. Find out what the problems actually are. They might not be what you immediately think they are.

After all, part of your own reaction may be “well, this is how I did it other places and that was better.” See? You might be doing it too.

Once you have a handle on at least some of the problems, think about which ones would be the easiest to solve (or at least show some improvement on) on a short time scale with minimal help. They may not be the most impactful problems (and likely won’t be), but they are something you can easily point to in terms of quality of life/business improvement.

Do those.

Your natural inclination is going to be to go for the big impressive stuff first, but that’s a mistake. Yes, pulling that off would look great, but the chances for failure (or sabotage) are too high. We’re trying to overcome organizational momentum, not get run over by it.

Making big changes and being right about it (without having organizational and personal buy in) runs the very real risk of making other people look bad because they weren’t doing it that way in the first place. We’re looking to build credibility and some momentum of our own in order to counteract the momentum of our team/company/whatever.

This is part of where Machiavelli got it really right – people won’t believe that change is possible (let alone that you can pull off that change) until you’ve already done it. And you’ll probably have to do it several times before you’re able to convince people that you might just be on to something.

It’s hard to argue with success. The good news is that, in the beginning at least, success doesn’t have to be big (as long as someone isn’t actively trying to sabotage you). Go for the easy, almost guaranteed, wins and make sure people see the results (and preferably how those results positively impact the bottom line).

Part of the way to dissuade that sabotage in the future is to give away at least a little of the credit even if you did all of the work yourself. It’s really damned hard for someone to work against you if you make them look good too.

When you get recognition for your win, paint it as a group effort (even if it wasn’t and you had to fight people to get things done). “I got great advice from Person X” or “I couldn’t have done it without the support of my boss/team/company mascot/whatever” goes a long way to getting you support from the people within your org.

When you make someone look good to the people above them, you’re well on your way to having an actual ally going forward. At that point, you can start to think about trying to take on larger challenges.

If they still try to work against you even as you make them look good, well, Machiavelli had a few suggestions about that too, but we won’t get into that here.

You can’t make large, meaningful change in an organization by yourself – no matter what your title in the company is. Get a couple of small wins, build a base of fans and allies, and then start going for increasingly larger changes.

You’ll probably find more success that way than trying to change everything day one.


2 responses to ““We’ve Always Done It That Way” and the Organizational Momentum Trap

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