Newton’s Laws and Goodwill

In high school and college physics, I became well acquainted with Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion. After nearly four decades as a CEO, I’ve concluded that the concepts underlying at least two of those three laws apply to organizations – actually, to institutions of all kinds – as well as to the physical world.

For example, Newton’s First Law of Motion – the Law of Inertia – is often paraphrased as “A body at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an external force.” How can that apply to organizations? It’s been my observation that the more an organization is removed from day-to-day competition (a powerful external force), the slower it is to adapt as its external environment changes.

When you are subject to competition on a day-to-day basis, there’s more of a sense of urgency, more of a drive to improve. You know that if you don’t improve, someone is going to take your customers (or in the case of a school, your students) away from you. For organizations that lack strong competition, the faster the rate of change on the outside, the more they tend to lag. They might survive, but they are likely to become increasingly ineffective.

This is not generally as much of a problem in the for-profit world as it can be in the public and not-for-profit sectors. In the for-profit world, if you don’t successfully adapt to external changes – including new or stronger competition – in most cases you will become extinct.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion – or a reasonable facsimile thereof – also applies to institutions. This law is often stated, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A Corollary might go something like this: “For every excess there will be a proportionate reaction and correction. The greater the excess, the greater the pain associated with the correction.”

Think about that in light of the financial problems currently plaguing the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. For example, excessive spending (and related borrowing) by individuals, organizations, or governments will eventually prompt a correction. Sometimes the correction will come only after years of excess. But eventually it will come. And with the correction will come pain proportionate to the degree of excess.

Of course, excessive conservatism can also be a problem. Companies that do not spend enough to properly maintain their physical assets, develop and retain their human capital, and improve their productivity are jeopardizing their future. They can also jeopardize their future when they fail to invest in opportunities for which they are well-suited, thus leaving the door open for more aggressive, well-managed competitors to increase their strength.

Governments – cities, states, nations – that fail to adequately maintain their infrastructures will eventually have a huge price to pay – and you can count on a strong reaction from their citizens when the bill and the pain associated with it come due.

While we take nothing for granted, at Goodwill we’ve thus far been able to avoid the kinds of excesses that can jeopardize an organization’s future. Goodwill is also fortunate to have functioned in a competitive marketplace since its founding. From the beginning, we have operated a commercial enterprise that sells goods to the public as a primary means of accomplishing our mission. This has been a driving force in creating and sustaining the culture of our organization and is a major reason we’ve grown and evolved the way we have.