Business lessons from the world of science

When the great scientist Isaac Newton published the Principia (Mathematical principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687, he could never have imagined the far-reaching impact of his magnum opus.

It changed the world view on subjects as diverse as mechanics, astronomy and light.

While its impact on science cannot be denied, observed carefully and from a distance it can have a bearing on unrelated fields like leadership, management, marketing, sales – in short many things to do with human behaviour.

 

See a disconnect somewhere?

 

Let me try and explain.

Newton’s first law of motion says: Every-body (object) continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion unless and until an external force acts on it (things go on as they are if there is no effort to change them).

 

This is also called the law of Inertia.

What is inertia, in simple English? It means the tendency to do nothing or remain unchanged.

Inertia should be the most dreaded word in the management lexicon today. Inertia or the tendency to do nothing has destroyed more companies in the last five decades than the environment or competition.

 

Let us look at some examples…

Remember Blackberry? About a decade back, for every corporate executive it was a must have. It beautifully bridged the gap between survival and style. It was one of the most prominent smartphones in the world. With a lovely QWERTY keypad and secure mail, it started the concept of Office on the move and 24*7 mail access. In 2013, it is estimated that almost 85 million customers were using Blackberry worldwide.

Today, the company that first made it – RIM (Research in Motion) does not exist in its original form. The Blackberry handsets sit as relics of the past in some houses.

While Blackberry was booming in the years 1999 – 2013, there were some other platforms that were also booming – IOS (iPhones were launched in 2007) and Android.

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Unwilling to change its platforms at the right time and unwillingness to embrace the magic of new smartphone user interfaces led to collapse of the iconic Blackberry.

Nokia at one point of time was considered invincible, the leader in devices by a wide margin. Where is it today?

Simply put, not the market forces but the mindset of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – the classic manifestation of Inertia – led to these iconic brands’ undoing,

Related to the concept of inertia is the concept of friction. When a body is stationary, the resisting force that prevents its movement is called static friction (static means at rest). When a body is on the move, the force resisting its movement is called Kinetic (in motion) friction.

In simplifying, think of a heavy dining-table at home. The force required to move it would be enormous – possibly calling for a few more hands (this is due to static friction); but once the table has moved an inch or so, to push it further becomes substantially easier as the resisting force seems to have gone down dramatically (that is, the kinetic friction).

 

Scientifically, static friction is greater than kinetic friction.

Linking it back to the corporate world, think of any change that needs to be introduced in an organisation. Something as simple as asking employees to attend meetings on time. When the change is first introduced, it is fairly difficult to implement. There is a lot of reticence, resistance etc. This is akin to static friction. Once the members of the organisation realise it is not as difficult as they had envisaged, the meeting attendance and time adherence improve. To initiate change is far tougher than to manage it.

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The futurist Alvin Toffler has said: “The illiterates of the world will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.

Most successful organisations build knowledge warehouses and processes that make them strong. Over a period of time, this becomes the organisation’s way of working. With each episode in the organisation’s journey, another layer of the way of working gets strengthened. This is part of the learning journey. The organisation starts to believe that it has answers to all the challenges thrown at it. The past learning effectively becomes the millstone of inertia.

Global leaders like General Electric, Ford Motor Corp have seen their valuations drop over five years because they failed to get out of their ‘ways of working’; their unwillingness to unlearn, get rid of their inertia is their undoing.

Going back to Newton’s Law, what can prevent inertia is an external force. The force has to come from the CEO – it is he or she who chooses to unlearn and relearn, and decides that the company is no longer a corporate illiterate.

But the changes mooted encounter friction – remember static friction? However, once the change is pushed through the resistance to change lessens – remember Kinetic Friction?

To sum up: An organisation is bound to fail if it continues to work the way it has been doing (inertia). If no external force acts on it (either leadership- or environment-driven), it will not change course. While the external force might encounter resistance, sustained effort can bring about radical transformations.

 

Murthy Chaganti is the Chief Operating Officer at AirtelTigo Ghana. Murthy is a seasoned professional, and has essayed leadership roles in diverse industries like FMCG Consumer Durables and Telecom.  A keen observer of the world, he loves travelling, sports, and dabbles in writing.

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