Feeling Gravity’s Pull

A Four Minute Read

They gave us too much Delta-V. They had us burn too long. At this rate we’re gonna skip right out of the atmosphere, and we’re never gonna get back.” – Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), Apollo 13

A spacecraft trying to reenter Earth’s atmosphere faces a conundrum – if it comes in too high and fast, it will fail. If it comes in too slow or too peopleshallow, it will fail.

There are Change Advocates who claim that the “only” way to change an organization is to move with lightning speed – faster than anyone can process the change. Be bold, be fast, be furious – like tearing off a Band-Aid. And there are those who easily fall prey to an overabundance of caution – letting analysis paralysis to set in.

Leading a Change effort is a lot like Captain Swigert trying to bring in his space capsule – unless you plan it just right and execute that plan – there is real danger trying to navigate through your atmosphere.

Not Too Fast

If a spaceship’s velocity is too high, it simply overheats. There are heat shields – but they can only take so much. And, as we’ve seen with the Columbia, even the tiniest flaw in the heat shields can be fatal.

Trying to change your organization too fast can cause the same problem. People will be agitated to begin with – racing through the process, not allowing them time to process, increases both their number and their frustration level. They either flame out or incinerate those around them. You can try to engineer protections – a “heat shield”, if you will – but the odds of designing a countermeasure with enough integrity to face that challenge, without any weakness or cracks – are long indeed.

Not Too Steep

It’s not the velocity, it’s the angle. Coming in too steep creates too much friction. Friction causes heat (see above), but also eats away at every exposed surface of the spacecraft. The ship literally disintegrates in midair.

Sharply driving the effort deep into the organization with blunt force (“It’s change – get over it already”) creates enormous organizational friction. Excess meetings (formal and informal), gossip, a distracted workforce – all takes away from the real work to be done, and can cause the change effort to vaporize without a moment’s notice.

Not Too Shallow or Slow

Director Ron Howard and the Apollo 13 screenwriters got this wrong. A spaceship doesn’t skip off the atmosphere like one of Opie Taylor’s river stones. What happens is, if a ship is coming in too shallow, it takes too long to slow down to landing speed. The longer that takes, the more distance it travels – which means it will miss its landing spot and touch down in parts unknown.

Dragging out a change event – perhaps because you’re waiting for everyone to get on board – means you’ll likely shoot past important milestones. When you wrap up – and where the organization is, strategically, seasonally, productivity-wise – is anyone’s guess.

The longer the spaceship is traveling through the atmosphere, the more fuel it’s burning – which eventually runs out. The ship will drop like a stone.

Change takes a lot of “fuel” – leadership brainpower, employee emotion, the balancing of cognitive dissonance across the organization. Dragging out a change event just wears everyone down. Eventually, they just stop.

The longer the spaceship is traveling through the atmosphere, the longer it’s exposed to heat. While it’s not an intense inflammation like a too-fast landing, eventually the insulation melts, and the ship (and everyone on board) melts with it.

Even those with the most endurance, who seem to have a never-ending supply of energy, eventually burn out.

So What to Do About This?

Emulating Mission Caption Matt Kowalsky – bailing, and drifting away into space (sorry, wrong film) – isn’t an option. Like a space mission, a change effort requires planning and careful consideration:

  • Understand the Effects of Friction
    Put forward an honest effort to appraise the landscape you will navigate. What obstacles are there? What will your employees “bump up against”? What debris will they put in the way? Understand their concerns – and how strong their resolve is.
  • Determine How Hot It Can Get
    Not just how much heat can you and the leaders take, although that’s important. How long and intense will the reaction to the change be? How can you change your approach – in physics, it’s literally called your attitude – to keep things as cool as possible?
  • Know Where You Want to Land
    Make sure your vision carries you all the way through to touch down. A change effort worth its salt shouldn’t be left to improvisation – to saying, “Let’s get started, and we’ll figure out where the endpoint is, once we see how we’re doing.” That sounds absurd (because it is), but it is not uncommon.
  • Don’t Get Too Far Ahead of Yourself
    In Apollo 13, Swigert gets more and more worked up. Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) tells him, “There are a thousand things that have to happen. We’re on number 8. You’re talking about number 692.”
  • Commit to a Course of Action…
    Make sure your resolve is up to the task. It will get hot. Things will get shaky. Get a tight grip on the stick, and keep the organization’s nose pointed where it needs to be.
  • …But Make Sure Mission Control is Backing Your Play
    Have a coalition of leaders, from all walks of the organization and all disciplines, checking your work ahead of time. Make sure they are aligned with the above four bullet points, so when they need to make a course correction, they are using the same fundamentals as you – and heading to the same landing spot.

Change Management isn’t rocket science. Rocket science is easier – there’s known variables, predictable forces, and natural laws. Leading an organization through a change initiative lacks most of that. Some careful planning can reduce the unknowns, and make the unpredictable less so.

Leading a change effort can be just like bringing a spaceship through reentry – judge the right angle, the right speed, keep your eye on the goal, and be ready to course correct as necessary.