Drive Towards Sunrise Using Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Changing Workplace Culture, Part 2

Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything, Employee Engagement, Organizational Culture

As promised in my last blog post, this week we discuss how Newton’s second law of motion can be applied to changing workplace culture. The second law is more complex, but if you stick with me, I promise to use it to explain another big and painful challenge when creating change in workplace culture: resistance.

Here’s Newton’s second law:

F=ma. The vector sum of the forces on an object is equal to the mass of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector of the object.

Or, in plain English, force equals mass times acceleration.

Now, you may be asking, “How can this possibly help me change my workplace culture?” Here’s your answer:

To get an object accelerating, the size of the force you apply and the direction of that force will both make a difference. This may seem obvious now, but it was not before Newton’s time. The mass, m, in the equation represents the mass of an object. The greater the mass of an object, the more force required to move that object.

The same applies when changing workplace culture.

To create change, first consider the “mass” of your current workplace culture. For example, perhaps you’re hoping to change a culture of complacency or one where low performance is accepted. The longer this kind of culture has been the norm, the greater the mass it acquires. The greater the mass of the culture, the greater the force — in other words, the time, energy and resources — required to move it. (By the way, this is why startups tend to be so nimble. Because they do not have a well-established culture, their culture has little mass.)

If force is not applied, the workplace culture of complacency or low performance will continue to gain mass and become more and more difficult to change. So what kind of force might you apply? A few examples are individual and team incentives, coaching, training, skill set development, and if those do not work, introduce in progressive discipline.

Cause and Direction

But beyond force, you also have to think about direction. While most companies use vision, values or mission statements to try to create a direction for the workplace culture, I have found that defining cause is much more powerful. Here is a simple way to distinguish between mission and cause:  Mission is what you do.  Cause is why you do it.  You can think of cause as meaning, significance, big picture and purpose.  To identify your cause, define how your product or service either changes the world or changes human experience in the world. I don’t care if you make widgets. I care how your widgets change people or society.

Cause drives behaviors mission cannot.  For example, the cause at Tesla is to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles and electric technology. The obstacle to achieving that cause is range or distance anxiety — drivers’ worry that their car will run out of power before they reach somewhere to charge it.

To overcome that obstacle, Tesla built rapid charging stations up and down both U.S. coasts and then in a line across the center of the country. Not good enough. So CEO Elon Musk went to his engineers and told them this: “I want you to build a system that will allow our customers to drive into a rapid charging station, drop their discharged battery and pick up a fully charged battery.  And I want that exchange to happen in five minutes – or about the time it takes to fill a fossil fuel gas tank. You have six months to do it.”

As it turned out, they met the goal in four months. What happened next?  In the remaining two months, they created a system that executes the exchange in 90 seconds. Now that’s how to apply cause as a force to move workplace culture. Imagine if Musk had used traditional incentives and instead told his engineers, “I will pay each one of you $100,000 for hitting that five-minute goal.” What would have happened after four months when they hit the goal? They would have been cashing their checks, and the additional innovation wouldn’t have happened.

As humans, we have drives to connect and belong. We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves that gives our lives meaning. That is what cause offers us. We are asking people to spend about a third of their adult lives at work. Cause makes that time meaningful for them. This is why it is a powerful (though too often not applied) force to move workplace culture.

Still with me? In my next post, I’ll share what Newton’s Third Law of Motion can teach us about changing workplace culture.

If you have questions on this post or any previous post, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask.

Keep cultivating your culture!