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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

Non-Newtonian Routine Dynamics


Except for corner cases, everything is a fluid. Gases, solids above some critical temperature, crowds, opinions, and even organizational routines. Routines are a clear example of a fluid. They transport problems from A to B and along the way transform the problem into a solution, and end state.


Intuition tells us that the stronger the force it perceives, the higher the shear, the more it budges. We call these Newtonian fluids, a lá for every force there is an equal and opposite reaction. But not all fluids behave like that.


Non-Newtonian fluids are fluids whose budging follows a nonlinear relationship to the force applied. Think of Ketchup, what we call a pseudo plastic, if you hold a container of ketchup with the opening down, it won't flow, but if you apply enough pressure (e.g. squeeze the fluid through a small opening it will squirt out). Or think of Cornstarch and water -- a dilatant -- if you punch it it hardens, but it is soft to the touch of approached with care.


Organizations

Organizational routines can be Newtonian fluids. Indeed, the idea of problemistic search, is amicable to Newtonian flow. As a problem is found the organization searches for solutions around the problem. As these solutions are exhausted, the pressure builds up and the search broadens and quickens.


Non-Newtonian routines exist as well. Think of a middle manager who receives an order from the CEO, the added pressure will lead to a disproportionate amount of work. The middle manager's career hangs on the balance, it is no time for a Newtonian or proportional reaction, a typical pseudo plastic behavior. Think of the organizations that follow any new hype, that go digital, create blockchains, and LLMs no customer needs.


Dilatants are even more abundant within organizations. They are built on cognitive dissonance. As a team realizes there is a potential problem, they will assess it. But if the problem is too big, the organization will choose to disregard it. The organization will harden upon the stress and operate in a business as usual manner. Things can change but only when there is enough time for it. Think of the Rerup and Feldman (2011) case in which mental schemes changed in a second loop of learning that adapted what the organization wanted to accomplish.


The crux of the matter here is the ontology of change. In Newtonian fluids (e.g BToF) organizations search at an increasing pace as they come to understand the magnitude of the problem they face. Pseudo plastic routines are solid under small forces but flow rapidly when pressure is applied. Dilatants are solid under pressure, fluid in times of calmness.


Performance

What kind of routine is best will depend on the type of change faced. Resilience at the end depends in both adaptability (pseudo plastic) and buffering (dilatant). As such, March might be right in proposing a Newtonian change process, but luck and discretion are central to behavioral strategy. Some firms might choose to adapt rapidly to small pressures, but they could also solidify and tackle the problem heads on.


Cognitive

Flight, fight, freeze, are the three coping mechanisms our bodies use to fight change. These three can be well placed within fluid dynamics. Fight being the standard Newtonian version that adapts to change. Flight, the pseudo plastic that when faced with a problem chooses to morph into a new product than face if head on. Freeze, the good old incumbent behavior, you "can have a car painted any color that [you] want as long as it is black", or the we are Polaroid, we print pictures not store them reaction so common before disruption.


Personal

At work, I think I am more of pseudo plastic. When thinking of a problem, I will change my mind often and many times. I will push myself to look for convergence of solutions and avoid believing what one single star told me. I always think on the notion from photography that "your first 100 000 photos are the worst you will ever take" and wonder where my ideas are at every step.


In life, I hope to be a Newtonian fluid. I strive at being level headed and fair. But as a migrant, I am often faces with situations in which the two are at odds and leads me to be more of a dilatant. If pressure comes, I will double down grasp my anger and demand my human rights.


I am coming from a couple of weeks that my dilatant nature shine. My wife and daughter were in danger andy protector nature waNature was triggered. Nothing, nowhere, never touches my family. There is no middle ground, you will face all my wrath. I find this dichotomy in my behavior quite appealing. In the realm of the ideas, I will play around and over explore, in the realm of love, I know what I need and will latch on to protect it.

PS: You might notice the Bingham's above. They have clear organizational analogues. These are the firms that act rock solid early on but afterwards embrace change at an ever expanding rate. Think of incumbents approaching bankruptcy or after Chapter 11.

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