Organisational Change Management Volume 1

Active Inertia

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Successful organisations can show "active inertia". This occurs when leading organisations become stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought them their initial success, ie a prisoner of their own success. Consequently, staff close themselves off to innovative ideas and strategies that would preserve market leadership. In fact, the inertia becomes institutionalised

The organisations suffering from active inertia have a tendency to respond to even the most disruptive shifts in the environment by accelerating actions that worked in the past, ie management responds to market disruptions by doing more of the same (definition of insanity)

When the conditions change, their once-winning formula ossifies and brings failure, ie

Strategic frames (the set of assumptions that determine how managers view the business) become blinkers to new options and opportunities

Processes (the way things are done) become mindless routines so that people overlook better ways of working

Relationships (the ties to employees, customers, suppliers, distributors and shareholders) become shackles so that when conditions change, these relationships can restrict flexibility

Values (the set of shared beliefs that determine corporate behaviours and culture) become dogmas as they harden into rigid, self-defeating rules and regulations.

Statements which suggest that the symptoms of active inertia prevail

"...we know our competitors inside out"

"...our top priority is keeping our existing customers happy"

"...we are not the world's greatest innovators, but we run a tight ship"

"...our processes are so well tuned that the company could practically run itself"

"...we focus R&D on product refinements and extensions, not on product breakthroughs"

"...we are sceptics. In our view, the leading-edge is the bleeding edge"

"...we cannot allow ourselves to get distracted by all the new fads in the marketplace"

"...we have a very stable top management team"

"...we have a well entrenched corporate culture"

"...we will never relinquish our core competency"

"...our processes are world class, and we follow them religiously"

"...if it ain't broke, we don't fix it"

"...we have high levels of employee loyalty, but when we bring in talented new people, they often get frustrated and leave"

"...we have carved out an enduring leadership position in our industry"

"...we view our current distributors as key strategic partners. We don't want to alienate them by rushing into new channels"

"...our corporate values are sacred; we will never change them"

Donald Sull, 1999

To avoid "active inertia", managers need to ask "What is hindering us" rather than "What shall we do"

Furthermore, a way to handle active inertia is called transforming commitment, ie action that increases the cost or eliminates the possibility of persisting in the status quo. It involves binding staff to specific behaviours to handle the future and getting the organisation out of its rut of familiar and comfortable behaviour. It presents a clear alternative to the established success formula. It has a no-going-back aspect that means business as usual is not a viable option. While transforming does not necessarily have to be revolutionary, it does need to

- have clarity

- be simple

- be concrete

- be repeatable

- be measurable

- embody the courage to break with the existing formula

- be steadfast in commitment

(sources: Donald Sull, 1999; Loren Gary, 2003a)


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