Project Management Institute

Understanding and overcoming resistance to change: Newton's laws for stakeholder management


Projects are run to enable beneficial change. Even when a project provides all of the deliverables as planned, there is no guarantee that the corresponding benefits and strategic gains will be realized. In the physical world, we all have practical experience with the main forces affecting change, and Newton formalized these in his three laws of motion. This paper analyzes the various types of resistance that projects generate, maps the forces involved and Newton’s laws into the project environment, and, finally, explains what this means for managing stakeholder expectations in order to achieve the project objectives.


Project change management is concerned with keeping the project aligned to the objectives and approved plans. That is not the focus of this paper, however. Instead, this paper looks “outside” the project and considers the effect of the project on the organization—or even beyond—and, of course, the converse: namely, the effect of the organization on the project. The concept discussed is “imposed change” or “created change,” and this by definition gives rise to imbalance and resistance from the stakeholders in the environment that needs to change.

The various standards developed by the Project Management Institute (PMI) address tools for dealing with change both internal and external. The project management standard (PMI, 2008a) is more concerned with planning, delivery, and controlling internal project changes than with organizational change. The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2008c) addresses benefits management but does not consider in detail the forces, for and against the changes that affect the likelihood of achieving the benefits. The Standard for Portfolio Management (PMI, 2008b) describes the techniques for devising the best mix of components to support a strategic intent; it addresses the challenge of how to allocate the organization’s available energy across the set of proposed initiatives in the most effective manner. The term “project-based management” will be used to refer to all three of these domains as an integrated concept.

This paper starts by reviewing the standard approaches to promoting change in the organization. It considers the role of “change agents,” analyzes the “performance dip” that is an unavoidable consequence of strategic change, and presents the standard organizational approaches for dealing with it. These standard approaches, however, deal only with the symptoms associated with imposing change rather than with identifying and treating the root causes.

In order to provide a consistent theory of project change, the various forces involved in project-based management are mapped onto the physical characteristics such as mass, force, acceleration, power, and so on. Newton’s laws of motion are then explained in general and reinterpreted in the context of projects, programs, and portfolios. This analysis provides a basis for understanding how to evaluate, manage, and overcome the corresponding resistance to change.

This analysis is used to explain how to structure and manage the extended project team to achieve maximum efficiency.

Part 1: The Conventional View

The conventional approaches start from the considerable experience of the difficulties encountered by project managers in achieving the predicted benefits on which the projects were approved (e.g., Johnson, 2006). There is a large amount of literature on the subject of how to overcome these difficulties, but most of the publications focus on a subset of the overall problem and propose a solution within that problem area, without seeing the broader picture. There are, for example, methodological approaches, such as the Management of Change model (Harrington, 2000) which propose organizational processes, as well as psychological analyses (Kourilsky-Belliard, 2000) which focus on winning the hearts and the minds of the stakeholders. Without an integrating approach, these partial solutions, however good they are within the problem area, do not always complement each other effectively to address the whole problem.

They start from the fact that any major change—and, normally, only a major change can generate a worthwhile benefit—encounters both conscious and unconscious resistance. They rarely try to come up with the fundamental reasons for this. But unless the fundamental reasons are understood, proposed solutions will generally address the symptoms rather than the cause of the problems.

Conscious resistance

There are a number of general reasons why people dislike the idea of change:

▪   They don’t like what’s happening

▪   They don’t like the way it’s being done

▪   They don’t like the fact that they are not the ones doing it

▪   They are afraid of the outcome

▪   They side with the vast gray army of those who don’t see why anything should change

In some cases, psychological approaches can be very effective at reducing the level of conscious resistance. However, this does not address the problem of how to deal with the remaining resistance, and can lead to devoting more time and effort to this subset than the partial result justifies.

Unconscious Resistance: The Production Dip

However well the conscious resistance is addressed, there is still an inevitable negative effect as the idea of the forthcoming change takes hold. This is sometimes known as the “production dip,” as shown in Exhibit 1.

The production dip

Exhibit 1: The production dip.

This dip is caused by people’s initially unconscious reaction to the idea of change. This can happen immediately, or appear later in a project that they initially supported strongly, when the project is encountering difficulties, or when people realize the full impact of the effort required. Conventionally, the stages are as follows:

▪   Denial: the belief or hope that there is no real intent to change. Information about the change is ignored or rejected. No steps are taken to prepare for the change.

▪   Anger: frustration that no one seems to be listening to the other side of the argument. This can lead to irrational blocking actions.

▪   Pessimism: feeling of losing control. This can lead to disengagement from current activities.

▪   Despair: recognition that the change will happen. Paradoxically, although this is at the lowest point of the curve, it can mark the beginning of the recovery.

▪   Testing: bargaining to get something positive out of the change. This leads to a more optimistic view and re-engagement.

▪   Acceptance: a realistic view of the change. Although the negative feelings remain, people start to “get on with it.”

▪   Informed optimism: looking to the future. People start to experience the benefits.

The main approach for addressing this situation, minimizing the dip and moving through it rapidly is to designate “change agents.” Each change agent provides the information, support, and understanding required to help the various stakeholders through the stages listed above, as shown in Exhibit 2.

The role of the change agents in helping the stakeholders through the production dip

Exhibit 2: The role of the change agents in helping the stakeholders through the production dip.

These, and similar methods, are certainly necessary. However, to understand the what and the why of resistance to change, and therefore to come up with a response based on a consistent model, we need to turn to a well-tried and proven set of physical laws: Newton’s laws of motion (Newton, 1687) fulfill this need.

Part 2: The Physics of Change

In this section, the physical characteristics of force, mass, and distance are identified and these principles are applied to the project environment. This is then extended to cover work, power, and energy, so that well-proven physical laws can be applied directly to the issues associated with delivering change through projects. Exhibit 3 provides an overview of these ideas.

As an amusing aside, whereas Isaac Newton was holder of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University and formalized the concept of force, four centuries later a certain George Lucas introduced us to a “Force” that can only be channelled by special acolytes. We can hope to initiate project managers into this select society!

In Part 3 of this paper, the laws are mapped into the project environment, so that they can be applied to provide rules for the effective management of change.

The physical quantities and their project equivalents

Exhibit 3: The physical quantities and their project equivalents.

The Concept of Force

In the physical world, there are four main concepts associated with force:

▪   Force: a measurable influence affecting the movement of an object with mass; it has both magnitude and direction

  • Balance of forces: if a force acts upon a body, then an equal and opposite force must act upon the body from which the force originates

▪   Inertia: an innate property of matter, by which every body will remain in its present state, whether at rest, or moving uniformly in a straight line—that is, at a steady velocity

▪   Velocity: the distance covered in a unit of time in a specified direction

▪   Mass: the characteristic of matter that determines its inertia

  • The product of Mass by Velocity is known as Momentum

▪   Impetus: an instantaneous application of force to change an object’s momentum

In the project environment, the concepts associated with “force” are:

▪   The “object with mass” or “body” is the project

▪   Force corresponds to the applied resources in terms of people, influence, and equipment.

  • Force is applied in the project environment by means of processes, communication, negotiation, and political pressure

▪   Mass is the amount of the organization, technology, stakeholder assets, etc., affected by the change

The Concept of Work

There are three main concepts associated with work in the context of Newton’s laws:

▪   Work: this corresponds to the amount of energy transferred by a force acting through a distance

▪   Energy: this is defined as the ability to do work

▪   Power: the rate at which work is performed (and therefore the rate at which available energy is transferred)

So, to what do the physical quantities correspond in the project environment?

▪   Distance is the sum of all planned actions—that is, the amount of project activity required.

  • This corresponds to the project scope

▪   The project work corresponds to the result of the applied resources (force) in executing the project actions (distance)

  • Work can be measured in terms of effort expended (e.g., person-days, CPU hours) and can be tracked by use of “earned value” calculations (Fleming & Koppelmann, 2000).

▪   Energy is composed of all of the tangible and intangible resources that can be mobilized.

  • The amount of energy available depends on the number of these resources and the time over which they are available.

▪   The amount of power (rate of working) that can be made available depends on the available energy and the effectiveness of channelling and applying it at high intensity

  • The effectiveness of project-based management depends on how well adapted the techniques and processes are to the organizational environment and vice versa, as explained in the Organizational Project Management Maturity Model Knowledge Foundation (OPM3®) (PMI, 2008d) and, more pessimistically, in A Project Management Immaturity Model (Piney, 2001).

For project-based management, we need to add the definition of “useful work.” This corresponds to the amount of progress that the force generates towards the defined objective. Although all of the work consumes energy, all of this expenditure of energy that does not produce useful work is wasted from the project point of view. The more closely the direction of the force is aligned to the required direction of progress, the greater the corresponding amount of useful work generated.

In order to increase speed of execution, more useful work needs to be completed in each unit of time. Amount of work per unit time is the definition of power, so progress can be increased only by increasing the power usefully applied. This requires either or both of the following: increasing the flow of energy into the project and aligning its action along the required direction of motion towards the desired result.

The exhortation to “work smarter” tends to mean “achieve the same result with less work.” You can do this in one of three ways: require less force—that is, simplify the solution (redesign) and/or reduce resistance (scenario selling), reduce the distance—that is, adjust the scope (program management; portfolio planning) or increase the efficiency—make sure the force is aligned to the required direction and apply the recommendations of OPM3.

In order to deliver the complete scope and carry out all of the final project actions correctly (e.g., handover, lessons learned), sufficient energy—the resources and support—needs to remain available right up to the end of the project. Ensuring this constancy of purpose requires planning right up to the end of the project, ongoing involvement of the stakeholders, retention, and motivation of the team and, in general, effective communications.


The three laws of thermodynamics—which were described over 200 years after Newton developed his laws—help us understand the role of energy (Exhibit 4):

The three laws of thermodynamics

Exhibit 4: The three laws of thermodynamics.

▪   The first law (Joule, 1845) is the law of conservation of energy which states that the energy within a system can only be increased by transferring energy in from outside the system

▪   The second law (Carnot, 1824) states that energy flows from states of high energy towards states of lower energy and cannot flow the other way

▪   The third law (Nernst, 1921) states that when energy runs out, everything stops

The first law puts on a scientific basis what every experienced manager knows: you cannot create energy from within a project, it has to come from outside; and the second law adds that this energy can come only from an area that has a higher energy level: in most project situations, this corresponds to areas of the organization with higher levels of authority. The third law completes this set of project truths by stating that for the project (and any other energy-dependent entity), without any input of energy, there is no work, and without work, there is no progress.

So, what is the best way to structure the extended project team to ensure effective transfer of energy, alignment of the forces in the required direction in order to achieve the project objectives most effectively?

Part 3: Applying the Principles to Drive the Project

A project is run in order to take the current state (“As-Is”) and transform it into the desired future state (“To-Be”). Although many project failures can be attributed to a misdiagnosis of what the To-Be state should really look like, the key skill of the project manager is to drive the project through the transition from As-Is to To-Be: a state that will be called “Go-Through.” The forces encountered within and between these three states need to be understood so that organizational approaches can be defined in order to deal with them most effectively, based on our understanding of the physical equivalents identified in the previous section of this paper. The forces as well as the production dip described in section 1 are mapped on to this three-state diagram in Exhibit 5, below.

The three states and the corresponding forces acting on the project, with ideas for managing them

Exhibit 5: The three states and the corresponding forces acting on the project, with ideas for managing them.

These forces, identified by the numbers in Exhibit 5, are explained below, and proposals are made for project structures, roles, and processes to gain the maximum return from them. Exhibit 6, at the end of this section, shows how these roles are mapped onto the forces in Exhibit 5.

Forces in the Initial (As-Is) State

Inertia is the inherent force that will oppose any change. In the project environment, it can be associated with comfort, familiarity, and ownership. It is exemplified by the statement “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Unless some force is exerted, nothing will change. In order to change the motion, or lack of motion, of an object, an external force needs to be exerted. In order to get the idea of change considered, within the current state you will need to channel dissatisfaction with the current state, based for example on inability to do all that you want or need to do. If this dissatisfaction is not channelled and remains diffuse or generalized, there may be many conflicting forces that will waste energy and generate heat without providing any useful work. This is where a project champion is needed in order to define and explain clearly the project vision (PMI, 2008c, section 2.2.2) from the point of view of the relevant stakeholders. This normally implies developing a number of complementary vision statements from a single mission statement. We can therefore consider the Force Number 1 in Exhibit 5 to be the force of vision. However good the vision is, there is no guarantee that it will be sufficient, on its own, to overcome all resistance. The next major challenge is caused by the project itself (the “go-through” or transition state).

Forces in the Transition (Go-Through) State

With project friction: the project work uses up energy and reduces the effect of the other forces on motivation and speed of change. This often comes from within the project team and wastes energy on personality conflicts, power struggles, disagreement on technical solutions, and stress caused by changes, impossible targets, etc. In addition, since the amount of energy expended in overcoming friction is proportional to the applied force, attempts to overcome this friction simply by pushing harder serve only to waste still more energy. This is therefore an area where the project manager’s “soft skills” need to be deployed. It is interesting to note that reducing the friction does not actually generate extra energy; however, it does reduce the amount of energy that is wasted.

Force 2 is pushback caused by the project environment. This negative force is caused by the idea of running this project, and all of the expenditure and difficulties that the project will entail, such as: cost, disruption, and uncertainty. This can sometimes be a vague dread based on previous bad experiences with projects.

For this reason, the transition state is precisely the area in which all of the knowledge, tools, and techniques described in the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2008a) can have a major effect.

Force 3 is the pull due to the project progress. This is a force directly aligned with the expected result. It can be generated by a mixture of the following “external attractors” in the end-state: a feeling of success, a wish for recognition, a wish to do something new, pressure from clients, and so on. All of these can be enhanced and focused by effective use of communications: lack of information on project progress is normally interpreted as hiding bad news and this increases project friction; good news, on the other hand, both reduces friction and encourages the external attractors to pull harder. This is where a set of “key users” can be of great service: in the same way that the champion drove towards an understanding of the vision at the start of the project, as shown in Exhibit 6, the key users should act as messengers and early adopters to ensure that the project outcome is understood and accepted. The champion and the key users fulfill the role of the Change Agents described in Part 1.

These forces, just like the force of gravity, increase as you reduce the distance from the attractor—i.e., as you approach the end of the project; but then the same can hold true for the opposing forces explained in the next section.

End-State (To-Be) Forces

 Apart from the attractor that has just been described, the end-state forces act directly on the initial state, but can change (increase or decrease) during the lifetime of the project.

Force 4 is the pull from the expected benefits that the project is expected to generate. For this to be effective, therefore, the stakeholders need to understand the benefits and how they will be generated. They also have to believe that they will be achieved! As stated in the introduction, this requires that the project should be explained in the benefits realization plan of the corresponding program and consistently championed by the change agents. Producing a project deliverable may generate a degree of relief and satisfaction, but the potential pull of that is much less powerful than you will get from a credible, measurable set of benefits. This is why the project has to be integrated into the structure of a well-defined program.

The pull on its own can be insufficient to start things moving. A focused effort is required in order to provide the impetus to overcome the inertia and create the initial momentum—i.e., to get the project launched. The key here is to focus the force and concentrate it into a short time. In physical terms, this is the definition of “power.” This is the job of a highly motivated and, of course, powerful executive who will act as “initiating sponsor.” It is also interesting to note that, in the case of an impetus, although the force required may be very large, the time required and the distance covered can be very small, so that the actual expenditure of work on energy overall remains small.

Force 5 is the push-back from any set of stakeholders who believe that they will lose out in one way or another if the project outcome occurs. There are a number of ways of dealing with this force. The two most effective ones are: reduction and redirection.

The amount of push-back can be reduced by effective stakeholder management. This needs to be started as early as possible and aims to minimize the potential causes for opposition by tailoring the requirements as well as by sympathetic lobbying of all potentially influential stakeholders. The effectiveness of the push-back on the project can also be reduced if this force is not directly opposed to the planned project direction. This requires either redesigning the project solution so that it does not directly affect the sensibilities of some stakeholders, or redirecting—and/or reducing—the opposition by showing the stakeholders that there are other, more important battles to be fought.

There will, however, remain a level of opposition; countering this requires an ongoing commitment at a political level. Although it is a role requiring political power similar to that of the “initiating sponsor” mentioned above, it requires a longer-term commitment, which therefore entails an ongoing expenditure of energy: in physics, energy is measured by the product of three quantities—Force, Distance, and Time. As shown in Exhibit 6, this role may therefore need to be assigned to a different executive who may take over from the initiating sponsor and act as “sustaining sponsor”: whereas the initiating sponsor, because of the immediate application of force required, needs to have power but will not expend much energy due to the short time and distance involved, the sustaining sponsor needs to maintain energy throughout the lifetime of the project. Whereas the initiating sponsor aims to create the required momentum, or to divert the current momentum towards the project vision, the sustaining sponsor works to ensure that this momentum is maintained. This need for two distinct sponsorship roles is often not understood or applied in projects, and is one of the major sources of frustration to project managers and their direct teams.

The roles involved in managing the project forces

Exhibit 6: The roles involved in managing the project forces.


Whereas the current set of standards in the project management area provides very good recommendations, rules, tools, and techniques for effective project management, they are not based on a clear set of fundamental laws. This paper has provided such a basis, and one which is, to a certain extent, an everyday reality for all of the stakeholders. This mapping of the project environment onto physical laws can therefore be used by the project team to explain the realities of the project world—the cans and the can’ts—to senior management, clients, and other stakeholders in everyday terms with which they are much more at home. The organizational recommendations in Part 3 provide a sound basis for applying the physical rules in the management of the varied set of forces that are always present in projects, whatever their size.

In conjunction with ideas drawn from cybernetics (Piney, 2008), these physical laws applied to project-based management should be used to develop a coherent model on which the various standards (e.g., PMI, 2008b, 2008c, 2008d) should be based. This is work in progress and a challenge for the future.

Carnot, N. L. S. (1824). Réflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu et sur les machines propres a developper cette puissance. Paris: Bachelier, 1824

Fleming, Q. W., & Koppelmann, J. M. (2000). Earned value project management. Newtown Square: Project Management Institute.

Harrington, J., Conner D., & Horney, N. L. (2000). Project change management. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Johnson, J. (2006). My life is failure. Boston: Standish Group.

Joule, J. P. (1845). On the existence of an equivalent relation between heat and the ordinary forms of mechanical power. In the letter to the Editors of the Philosophical Magazine, series 3, vol. xxvii, p. 205.

Kourilsky-Belliard, F. (2000). Du désir au plaisir de changer. Dunod, 2000.

Nernst, W. (1921, December 12). Studies in chemical thermodynamics. Nobel Lecture.

Newton, I. (1687). The principia: Mathematical principles of natural philosophy. University of California Press, 1999.

Piney, C. (2001). A Project Management Immaturity Model. Retrieved from

Piney, C. (2008). Probernetics: The science of successful organizational project management. Proceedings of the PMI EMEA Congress, Malta, 2008.

Project Management Institute. (2008a). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2008b). The standard for portfolio management—Second edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2008c). The standard for program management—Second edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2008d). Organizational project management maturity model knowledge foundation (OPM3®). Newtown Square, PA: Author.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Crispin (“Kik”) Piney
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI European Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, The Netherlands



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