The physics of cultural transformation

Published by Bill Toliver on

While my work is focused almost entirely on helping social impact organizations create cultural transformation, it’s surprising how much comfort and insight can be found in the fundamental laws of physics that I learned in the early years of my engineering education.

For example, it is compelling to think about how well organizational culture maps apply to the four basic principles of flight.

Insight #1: Bricks are not designed to fly

Bear with me as I offer a 65-word physics lesson on the four forces necessary for flight:

Weight—The force of gravity that acts in a downward direction, ever-pulling something back to earth.

Drag—The force that acts in opposition to thrust, caused mostly by a lack of air flow, and too much friction.

Lift—The force that acts in an upward direction (in opposition to weight) to create flight.

Thrust—The force that propels things forward (in direct opposition to drag).

When lift and thrust are stronger than weight and drag, flight is not only possible, it is literally impossible to prevent. On the other hand, when weight and drag dominate, it is literally impossible to leave the ground (or stay aloft).

I am struck by how much weight and drag is present in some cultures in the nonprofit “sector,” and how hard it can be to create the forces that are essential to flight.

Insight #2: Gluing wings to a brick will not help

As the “pilot” of your organization (yes, I am, admittedly, flogging the analogy to death), your job is as simple and profound as making sure that the forces of lift and thrust are always greater than the forces of weight and drag.

When they are not it is your prerogative — and obligation — to change it.

Yet, literally millions of hours that could be applied to making a difference in the world are, instead, applied to the arduous (and fruitless) task of trying to do the equivalent of pinning wings to a brick. Trying to force a culture that is better suited to — perhaps even unwittingly designed for — inertia, rather than flight

Insight #3: Lives depend on your ability to fly

In the case of a pilot, the need to overcome the forces of gravity and drag is both obvious and instinctive, because there is a direct and dramatic connection between cause and effect: If a plane does not fly, lives are lost.

For leaders in the social impact sector, the issue is perhaps less obvious. But in most cases, it is no less consequential: Most of us have a moral obligation to fly because lives depend on us.

No individual nor group can be allowed to stand in the way of our obligation to touch those lives. There must be a relentless and tireless push to reach more people, and to do more for those people.

 A push that is not defined by how far we may have come,

but that is driven by how far we have yet to go.

A push that is not constrained by the nattering nabobs of negativity that incessantly argue for our limitations,

but that is compelled by the people we have yet to reach.

Insight #4: Altitude is a luxury many of us do not have

Each of us faces a simple, but profound, question: Do we have enough altitude/time to do the “comfortable” thing, and coax our drag and weight coefficients to change their very nature (despite ample evidence that they are disinclined to do so), or do each of us need to pour on maximum lift and thrust by any and every means available.

Your staff, your leaders, your board and your partners will probably support you — whether you want to try to overcome the forces of drag and weight over the next several years, or right now. But, barring a miracle, the laws of physics are absolute. They are not rooted in hope nor are they subject to our human wishes and whims.

Insight #5: It’s time to start some “pilot” projects

Lift does not happen by getting a “majority” of people to believe in (or even to agree to) change. Instead, you need to focus on the 10 percent to 15 percent of influencers or evangelists, and get them to believe in (and commit to) change. Thrust does not happen by suddenly becoming more aggressive on holding people accountable. It comes from empowering the influencers and evangelists through new pilot projects where the power of change can be proven.

When those projects become successful, you will find — just like an aircraft  —that flight is not only possible, it is literally impossible to prevent.

It’s time to fly

This is a pivotal moment in the nonprofit/civil society/social impact sector. A time when our success is not just necessary but, in many ways, the difference between life and death.

I realize the analogy has its flaws, but it can be helpful to understand that there are very real forces at play, there is a very real altitude question that puts time pressure on the equation, and there are very tangible things a “pilot” can do.

By the way, you have NO PARACHUTE and NO EJECTION SEAT in this scenario, so don’t ask!

[Editor’s note: Bill Toliver will be presenting both a masterclass and workshop session titled “Communications strategies to build powerful support for your cause” at IFC Asia, The Resource Alliance’s premier event in the Asia Pacific region, taking place 26-28 June in Bangkok. Check it out. We also wouldn’t hate it you’d help spread the word!]




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Bill Toliver

Bill Toliver

Bill Toliver is the founder and executive director of The Matale Line and a member of The Resource Alliance board.

1 Comment

paper io · July 4, 2023 at 09:51

Employers value candidates who exhibit resilience and the ability to overcome obstacles.

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