09/29/2010 02:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Isaac Newton: Obstacle to Work-Life Progress

Okay, I am aware that though he's been dead for 283 years, Sir Isaac Newton is widely considered the greatest scientist that ever walked the earth. He invented calculus, the reflecting telescope, and gravity (well, he didn't actually invent gravity, but was the first to explain how it operates). Because of that, you can add his name to those of Eve, William Tell and Snow White, all of whom had highly charged relationships with apples. And let us not forget his three laws of motion. But I know something about him that you don't: Newton's legacy is hazardous to our collective well-being.

I have been silent about my radical Newton theory for a long time, even though I am convinced that it completes the answer to the most important question posed to work-life proponents, "If work-life intervention is as beneficial for all stakeholders as you say it is, why the resistance after all these years? Surely everyone everywhere should get it by now?!" Indeed they would if it weren't for Newton and his mechanistic view of the world.

On this seventh anniversary of my organization's launch of National Work and Family Month, I am emboldened to share my unconventional thinking, boldly claiming that the business case for work-life has been adequately nailed. And that the key to full acceptance lies not in more data but in modern - not Newtonian - thinking.

It all boils down to the difference between classical Newtonian mechanics and contemporary quantum physics. (Focus. This is not as difficult as it sounds!) Here is the problem in a nutshell: Modern science is, well, modern. An open, dynamic, ever-changing system, full of energy fields, quanta, quarks, black holes, Big Bang, strange attractors and virtual reality. But our organizational thinking remains anchored in 300-year-old, outmoded scientific principles that fail to explain how the social world actually works. And whose fault is this? Newton's! Among other misapplications, Newton's concept of inertia was applied to people, giving rise to the idea that workers inevitably wind down like mechanical clocks if not whipped into activity by ever-vigilant supervisors.

I am not alone in challenging the 300-year hegemony of Newton's principles. Scientifically, he was overturned by Einstein a century ago, as detailed in an article in the Science Times. More recently, a Dutch scientist, Dr. Erik Verlinde, has been sticking his professional neck out by asserting that gravity isn't a force, as Newton claimed. It's simply a "byproduct of nature's propensity to maximize disorder." It turns out he may be the bravest among a number of physicists who think science has been looking at gravity the wrong way.

What has riveted my attention is the fact that although Newton's science has been continually debated and challenged, his legacy in the social/organizational realm has remained stubbornly intact. The result? We live and function in a quantum age, yet a surprising number of organizations and systems remain entrenched in Industrial Age concepts -- the kind that keep us stuck in old, outmoded ways of thinking, managing and behaving. Indeed, the kind of concepts that happen to be the antithesis of work-life practice. As a profession, we are quantum thinkers and doers. Take a quick look at the contrast between the two modes; I bet you will feel a stronger affinity with the second set of descriptors. The implications are profound. When you start poking around the edges of quantum theory you will discover as I have that our philosophical underpinnings (such as why "balance" is neither a desirable nor even an achievable state; the infinitely renewable nature of energy vs. the static, finite nature of time; a holistic view of interdependent systems) are rooted in today's scientific principles.

Newtonian Mechanics in a Quantum Age

Industrial Age Concepts:

  • Newton's law of mechanics
  • Entropy
  • Things, pieces, parts
  • Control, predictability
  • Caretaker of order
  • Things in place (rigid, structure of boxes, lines, silos, roles)
  • Hierarchy (ladder)
  • Equilibrium

Quantum Age Concepts:

  • Quantum physics
  • Flexibility, agility, resilience
  • Interrelated, holistic systems
  • Surprise, innovation, change
  • Facilitator of disorder
  • Things coming together (relationships, dynamic fields of energy, unfolding)
  • No unimportant players
  • Chaos and strange attractors

Bottom line: I'm suggesting that we banish Newton from the boardroom. It's time for us to spread the word that everything in our universe (and beyond) organizes itself according to quantum principles: our bodies, clouds, broccoli, ferns, every form of matter. Everything except the way we work, which is precisely where we are most stuck.

This will be our next big opportunity and challenge. If scientists are on the verge of proving that gravity doesn't exist, surely we can topple the concepts of time and place as relevant metrics of the output of labor. Then perhaps we can permanently end the resistance to work-life progress.