Changing Direction: How to Keep Cultural Inertia from Limiting Productivity

“The reason men oppose progress is not that they hate progress, but that they love inertia.” Elbert Hubbard, American writer and philosopher.

“Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” — Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize winning French biologist and surgeon.

Changing Direction: How to Keep Cultural Inertia from Limiting Productivity by Laura Stack #productivityDictionaries define “inertia” as a tendency to resist change. In physical terms, a body in motion tends to stay in motion in a straight line, while a body at rest tends to stay at rest. But other types of inertia exist, and cultural inertia represents the one that applies to most of us most often.

You probably know all you care to about bureaucratic inertia, for example. Once a bureaucracy makes a rule, woe to the individual who tries to buck it. Similarly, some corporate cultures resist change, often to their detriment, even as the world transforms around them. Some observers argue that the reason Hostess Brands went bankrupt was because it failed to change with the times, making no attempt to introduce products that appealed to a more health-conscious demographic. Because they did nothing, November 16, 2012 became The Day the Twinkie Died.

Facing Down the Juggernaut

In times of plenty and limited competition, big, slow-moving companies can survive and even thrive; but when the economy turns upside-down, suddenly they can’t find enough resources to keep going. Only the small and/or nimble survive. Nowadays, there aren’t many corporate dinosaurs left.

Unlike real-life dinosaurs, though, even the largest company can weather the change-storms if corporate leaders take advantage of—even welcome—the change. As one of those leaders, how can you shove your organization off a dead-end path?

1. Encourage innovation and initiative. “If I wanted your opinion, I’d ask for it.” “I don’t pay you to think.” “Stop complaining and get to work.” All these statements represent dinosaur thinking, and they should never come out of your mouth. Your people represent one of your greatest resources, and you’ll never know what profitable ideas they might have come up with if you refuse to listen. Take advantage of your team members’ experience, imagination, and desire to help; indeed, encourage it. Offer rewards for it. Money usually works, but so do recognition, comp time, days off, extra paid vacation, gift cards, and a whole pile of other incentives.

2. Empower your team to own their jobs. Give your contributors the general direction, and let them tell you how best to get there. Delegate sufficient responsibility and authority for them to do whatever they feel they must without having to ask—and without facing punishment if it doesn’t work. Otherwise, most will just keep their heads down until retirement, and the real go-getters will go work for someone who appreciates initiative. If that happens, inertia wins.

3. Make your organization worth working for. Nearly everyone prefers to be happy with and proud of their work…and so few are. Make an effort to change that. Celebrate the good things that happen. Let your people do their work the way they think best, instead of forcing them to follow hidebound rules. Lead by example, exercise scrupulous fairness, and tell everyone exactly how their contributions help grow the company, moving it toward its ultimate goals. Tell them why those goals matter, and how they can change the world. They may roll their eyes in response, but remember: these days, the leader acts more as a facilitator, cheerleader, and salesman than dictator. The more enthusiasm you can summon, the more enthusiastic your team will be.

4. Embrace and encourage change. You can resist change and die; or you can accept it as an integral part of your organizational culture, and move forward with vigor to face the future. The more flexible you are, the more willing to rebound and put that new force dead square where it needs to be in order to alter your company’s course for the better, the more likely you’ll still be there to help make the world a better place for a long time to come.

A Bare Beginning

By no means should you consider the four pointers outlined above to be the only things you can do to fight inertia; they represent little more than a jumping-off point. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance—whether you’re talking political freedom, or corporate freedom of movement—as well as conscious thought and endless innovation. Never hesitate to trim organizational fat, drop dying projects, skewer sacred cows, or blow past bureaucracies to get the job done on time and under budget. If the organization seems to be headed the wrong way, throw your weight against that inertia in every way you can.

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