Archimedes’ lever and organizational change

By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

Archimedes said, “Give me a long enough lever and I can move the world.”  This is a useful metaphor for introducing a couple key aspects of organizational change.

If you are considering an organizational improvement program, understanding decision-making gives you a “how” but not a “where.” Archimedes’ metaphor could be altered to suggest that where you put the lever can make quite a difference.

There are two parts to the “where” equation. Let’s begin with organizational structure.

Going top-down

First, the larger and more complex the organization, the more difficult and longer the change process will take. I would also posit that once you embark on this journey, you can never stop. If you do so, be advised that organizations have a remarkable tendency to return to their basic authoritarian nature.

Early in my career, I participated in or observed a large number of change attempts that began at the bottom of the organization. Most of these were built around sound but badly executed tools, such as the “quality circle.” The idea was you could simply get a group of employees together to begin working on quality issues. To my knowledge, they all failed.

If you participate in running an organization you must know that change happens from the top down. Every employee understands some version of the “plumber’s rule,” in which undesirable things tend to roll downhill. Starting a program by essentially bypassing the chain of responsibility (aka the chain of command) invites everyone in that loop to help make the program fail.

Consider that excluding is insulting. Without the engagement of your managerial cadre, change is likely to fail.

Some years ago I was fortunate to work with a GE plant during the time of Jack Welch, a change master. The plant manager, internal consultant and I began a huge effort to alter the managerial performance of his direct reports. When that was completed, every senior manager was involved in actively teaching a series of 40-hour training sessions for every person in the plant. You can imagine the planning, detail and time this program cost.

The core idea here was if senior managers taught the basic principles of effectively working together, we could be assured they were thoroughly imbued with the change principles. With one exception – there always is one – it worked.

Once you have such a senior cadre, you can then begin to work downward toward the first-line managers. These people are the key to successful organizational improvement. As you move down through the organizational structure, the change program must be iterative. The process is refitted to the needs of each unit, group, etc. This is a great opportunity to begin to practice consultative decision-making. Only the core principles will remain the same.

The right location

In any organization there are three types of people when it comes to change:

  1. Those who say, “Great idea, lets do it!”
  2. Those who say, “I’m from Missouri – show me.”
  3. Those who say, “Hell no!”

Where you put the lever can make a huge difference in how well the initiative is received and works. There seem to be three main areas where it is difficult for the naysayers to become empowered.

Most employees will not oppose a change process that is focused on safety, quality or training. People want to work in a safe environment, want to be proud of the company’s products and/or services, and if given the opportunity, want to be more effective in their jobs. These are simple but powerful ideas, and they are all embedded deeply in organizations’ core businesses.

Some years ago a company asked me to help them enact a change process where the lever would be better implementation of the performance review process. I suggested that the program had little opportunity to succeed and they needed to work in the core business (which was followed by “Goodbye, John”).

Think about it: How does better performance evaluation – a tool that is often the bane of managers and employees, and that many experts recommend abandoning – engage employees in a process that directly improves their well-being?

The sad fact was this was an organization where they had the choice of all three levers. Lever no. 2 is “you must begin in the core business.” Lever no. 3 is “begin where it has the greatest likelihood of succeeding.”

Cherry-picking the starting point has several benefits. It means you are starting with your best people and can work out problems and barriers without enduring negative kibitzing. It means you have a test bed to quickly assess what does and does not work, and serves as a model and invitation to other managers to ready themselves for the change process.

Boy, that Archimedes was a smart guy.


John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates His most recent book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You,” is available digitally at