Failing to get traction for new ways of working or cultural changes you want your organisation to adopt? That’ll be corporate inertia.
You cannot wake someone who is pretending to be asleep - Navajo Proverb
The other week, a former colleague and coaching client who is leading an agile and lean transformation in a very traditional, inflexible organisation, bemoaned to me his senior leadership’s “obsession with traditional approaches and ways of working”. He had collected and presented evidence on the ineffectiveness of existing governance mechanisms, highlighting how inappropriate they are for dealing with their current challenges, and evidenced the benefits of trialling the new approach he was proposing. Yet, he could not get traction.
This corporate inertia to adopting new ways of working is common and is rooted in comfort with the familiar and fear of the unknown. People don’t necessarily think the old ways are better. In fact, often they’re fully aware that current methods aren’t effective and haven’t been for some time, but they’re choosing to stick. They’re opting out of confronting (or even openly recognising) the reality. The status quo is just too darn comfortable and familiar.
Switching to something… is perceived as a new decision, and an active one. In contrast, we don’t really view the choice to stick with the status quo as a decision at all… [But] sticking with the path is as much of a decision as choosing to quit.
She goes on to say that:
The next time you find yourself saying, “I’m just not ready to decide yet,” what you should actually say is “For now I think that the status quo is still the best choice.”
When you then add to this status quo bias organisational cultures where leaders are scared of getting it wrong (there’s low psychological safety), we’ve really got a problem:
comfort with the status quo + fear of trying and failing at something new = inertia.
We talk about the fight and flight responses to fear, and where change threatens an organisation or an individual’s identity or values, we see a strong ‘fight’ response as the antibodies swarm around to protect the status quo. But there is another type of fear response, well-documented but less talked about, which I think is more common in response to fear about a potential change - the ‘freeze’ response. In other words, doing nothing.
However frustrating it is (and believe me, I know how frustrating it is), it is the innovator or change-maker’s job to understand the causes of inertia of this type and, either find solutions to overcome them, or find the patience to wait until the timing is right.
Overcoming and Dealing with Inertia
Ultimately, there are two forces that can help us overcome this type of inertia. Ash Maurya’s work covers this brilliantly from a product adoption perspective. I think you can apply it just as well to any type of change you’re trying to effect.
The first way is to use the pull force. This means evidencing the benefits of, and improving confidence in, the alternative you are offering. It means taking the time to understand the outcomes people are trying to achieve and clearly articulating how the alternative you are offering better enables them to do that. This is largely within your ability to influence. Indeed, my colleague had been pulling with all his might.
However, he’d been focusing his attention on trying to convince people who, whilst influential, were least likely to be first in line to adopt something new. Instead, he needed to find his early adopters - those individuals in the organisation who weren’t pretending to be asleep, who recognised and felt the impact of the ineffective existing solution, and were looking for something better. Just as in new product development, finding those early adopters and getting them to evangelise and show early evidence of effectiveness and traction is essential if the herd is ever going to follow.
With or without those early adopters, you have control over how you (and potentially your team or department) work. Start with you. Always. If you can’t walk the walk and show impact within your own sphere of influence (no matter how small), how can you expect anyone else to follow?
The second way to overcome inertia is to use the push force. The push force is a trigger event that forces a switch. This may look like the existing solution/status quo becoming so unattractive that even a leap into the unknown feels preferable (for example a prohibitive increase in time or money).
More often, it is something or someone that forces us to switch - new laws and regulations (e.g. GDPR) or a new leadership directive are good examples. In other words, the ‘stick’ (as opposed to the ‘carrot’). People tend not to change until it really hurts not to.
Unfortunately, other than looking out for potential ‘sticks’, there’s usually little a catalyst can do to create them.
That being the case, and if you’ve tried everything you can to overcome organisational inertia, you have two options available to you: you can either wait it out and be ready to support the change if and when the tide starts to turn, or you can quit. Both are ok. Both are valid. There are simply some things beyond our control, no matter how hard we try and how difficult that is to admit. As Annie Duke says:
Success does not lie in sticking to things. It lies in picking the right thing to stick to and quitting the rest.
Recognise inertia and understand what’s causing it and what could help overcome it.
Provide the ‘carrots’ and look for ‘sticks’.
If the inertia continues, divert your energy elsewhere (refocus or quit) before you completely deplete your reserves of resilience.
If and when the tide turns, be ready to seize the opportunity.
If you're interested in coaching to help you through a similar challenge, please get in touch by dropping me a message to email@example.com.