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Newton’s laws, strategy & change

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Aerial view of buildings and markets on Lagos Island.

For most business owners and organizational leaders, the last one year has been particularly difficult: higher interest rates, devalued naira, reduced government and private consumption, hyper-inflation and slow or negative business growth. As the year winds down, many businesses have “lost their shirts” and most of those who are still in the game are struggling to stem the tide of a recessionary economy.

The Government at all levels is faced with an even worse predicament, and I imagine the heads of Government Agencies (especially the new ones) who thought they would come in and make a quick change are finding it difficult to make things happen in these uniquely difficult times.

The question is – how do we all get out of this mess, or do we just wait it out, and soon the storm will be over. Unlike other periods of economic meltdown that I have experienced in my adult life – firstly in 1997, then in 2007, our current predicament seems to be quite isolated from the rest of the world, and I doubt that it will just auto-correct by itself. In fact, from what I learned recently at a Kaplan Norton Balanced Score Card Strategy Workshop about the relationship between Newton’s Laws of Motion and Strategy Execution, I think that we all need to really do something disruptive if we are to save our businesses, our economy and our society. So where does Newton meet Strategy and Change, and how can this help us? Let’s explore the three laws of motion.

The first of Newton’s laws is the law of inertia – “an object in motion continues in the same direct and speed unless acted upon by an unbalanced force”.

So, your company, government agency and our country are currently moving in the same direction (recession) at the same speed (ever increasing), and the only way to change our direction (boom) is if we deploy an unbalanced force, better known as disruptive innovation in modern business language. So, the first law of motion, or our first law of strategic turnaround is that we all have to deploy some disruptive innovation to stem the tide of our current situation and create the economic turnaround that we desire. disruption is at the heart of innovation and strategy – it is about being audacious enough to do things that otherwise seem absolutely crazy, and that may even seem unpopular, so that we can create the blue ocean or uncontested space that can put us on the inflection point and set us on the path to sustainable success. Organizations that are prepared to be disruptive will have a better chance of surviving these times, and making a positive change for themselves and our country. those who fail to disrupt will more likely continue in their state of mediocrity and under-performance, until perhaps the disruptive force created by others helps them turn-around or kicks them out of reckoning.

The second law of motion is even more interesting, and supports the first law in an even more impactful way for us – “the greater the mass of the object being moved, the greater the amount of force needed to move the object” In strategy language, the more problems that your business or our society faces, the more audacious, radical and disruptive the change that is required. in essence, this is not really a time for small steps – this is a time to leap frog: to set our eyes on the highest level of innovation and commit ourselves to driving the changes required to achieve it. Again we are in a serious mess, and have dug a very large hole for ourselves. We can only get out of this mess if we are prepared to use a greater and commensurate amount of force. Your organization should therefore not just be thinking disruptive, but it should be thinking BIG – focusing on big hairy audacious goals and backing them up with the discipline of strategy execution and change management that will make them a reality.

Finally, Isaac Newton taught the world that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. From a strategy execution and change perspective, it simply means that to create the positive change that we desire for our organizations and society, we must be prepared to accept the initial negative and harsh consequences of our actions, that will initially seem to jolt us in the direction of difficulty, but that will ultimately produce the positive energy and direction that is required to transform our fortunes.

I remember the last time I encountered Newton’s laws, I was then popularly referred to by my colleagues at Kings College Lagos as “Abbott” (nick-named after the author of our Physics textbook) I remember the disappointing look my Physics teacher Mrs. Okoye gave me when I told her I was studying to become an accountant, but I hope that my new found fusion of Physics and Strategy has purchased me some redemption in Mrs. Okoye’s book, but even more I hope it has inspired you to think about your organization and our country, and the strategic direction and change

Barrow, a chartered accountant, is an Abuja-based strategy consultant and advisor


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Isaac Newton

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