Business Strategy: Inertia–Darn Sticky Stuff!

When organizations “stand still” for very long, they become stuck. This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, the execution of strategy is really about building structure (for example, systems, rewards and organizational design) to make sure the organization is aligned and focused. When change is required, however, inertia can become a deadly disease.

The challenge of inertia comes in two colors: one, when the external environment (for example, competitors, customer demands and technology) requires you to change to succeed, or two, you realize you need a new and better way to do things. That’s when the fight begins. The organization acts like a guy with a six-pack of Coors and a bag of chips on a comfortable couch watching a football game. You can only get him to move by setting his chair on fire or perhaps offering a bigger TV and better beer at the neighbor’s house. Overcoming inertia comes in either a planned or unplanned fashion. Sometimes the unplanned variety (that is, the chair on fire) is more successful!

It’s helpful to think of this as freezing and unfreezing. When you craft new strategy, you need to build and freeze the practices, systems, skill sets, reward programs and organizational design that allow you to execute that strategy. When you change the strategy or behavior, you need to unfreeze the current practices to develop new ones. Everyone encounters the need to break inertia, whether it’s your diet, your exercise routine or leading your company. (The famous quality guru, Edward Demming, might take issue, because he said, “We do not have to change, because staying in business is not compulsory.”)

Inertia is a bit like the mold on the stuff in the back of your refrigerator; it takes a while to grow. If you’re in a young technology company, you have little problem with inertia. In fact, you’re lucky if the food ever makes it to the fridge! That’s a different problem. However, if successful, you eventually have a challenge with inertia. If you lead a larger, established company in a more stable environment, inertia is like cement! Ignore it at your peril. If you’ve ever disregarded a shoulder injury, you likely found that you couldn’t get your shirt on in the morning. By then, the “fix” was long and painful.

If you encountered a car stuck in the mud and decided to help the driver out of his predicament, you wouldn’t get a running start and smack into the back of his car. You might get a little movement, but mostly pain and carnage! Your best option would be to marshal additional help, get the best angle, establish a firm grip, start pushing until you got movement and continue, lest you get stuck again. The same rules apply in an organization. Are you aligned and focused on the right activities or just stuck?


Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of, Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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