How Can You Tell if Inertia is Keeping You from Moving Forward?

Overcoming inertia
Overcoming inertia

Manufacturers must concern themselves with regulatory changes, technology changes, and market changes that are not always an evolutionary part of the business story. Identifying when individual task-ownership and simple inertia is undermining your overall efforts to respond effectively to outside requirements is tricky because, after all, not changing is always more comfortable. Breaking free of the past without leaving the value of historical experience behind is a challenging balancing act. Understanding your organization’s tendency to prefer closed- versus open-systems can help you diagnose and fix your innovation challenges.

Pattern recognition has long been a useful and important method of forecasting outcomes. We use the results from an earlier forecast as a basis to plan and execute a new task. We factor in the ever-present potential for unpredictability in the model. And we rely most on those managers and leaders who can effectively use the historical models and also respond efficiently when the unpredictable rears its ugly head.

One of our challenges as leaders is to be sure we understand if the success of individuals or departments is based on their preference for an open-system or a closed-system approach. Neither system is inherently good or bad, but for organizations that want to keep growing, we know that innovation is a key factor. Closed-systems tend to stifle innovation because they rely on control that keeps everything the same. In the closed-system model, individuals and departments tend to be insensitive to trends or factors outside of the system that have the opportunity to become impactful, simply because they ignore them or dismiss them as not relevant.

When launching system implementation projects, we see this closed-system mentality demonstrated in a number of ways. The most common and, at the same time, the most difficult to combat is when an individual holds critical influence because he built or designed the existing system and is unwilling to relinquish the control that role provides. He truly struggles to see that new models for sharing data can be more beneficial to the organization as a whole. His focus is on his comfort and on the impact that a new system will have on his and his department’s efficiency. He overlooks the greater good that innovation will produce.

Another demonstration of resistant behavior that is common in those with closed-system attitudes is that their responses often land at either end of a standard distribution when evaluating if an outside change, such as a new or modified regulatory requirement, will be impactful. Those with a strong closed-system attitude will believe it is either ‘no big deal’ or that ‘the sky is falling’. Neither of those extremes is particularly helpful in designing and deploying responses to beneficial changes, as both create roadblocks to moving forward. Those who think it is no big deal simply don’t engage with the new project with enough urgency and consequently drag things down. While those who see wholesale disaster will distract meaningful efforts with meaningless tangents and an overload of inconsequential details.

Research on disruptors and innovators often shows that their success comes because they are able, in their open-system cultures, to develop and bring to market the solutions and products that their closed-system competitors could never envision. Part of why disruptors are able to bring unexpected solutions to known problems to the marketplace is simply because their closed-system competitors just didn’t see it coming.

Demonstrating inertia

Sales and marketing teams have access to a lot of information on the difficulty of bringing something new to market; much of their creative effort is spent preparing and delivering messages designed to deal with inertia. Most sales people will point to the status quo, and not a competing vendor, as their single greatest competitor in the market. Part of what these facts tell us is that most organizations have some functions, like sales and marketing, that are very aware of the impact of inertia and the role of the status quo in driving decision-making. But, as is classic in many analytical situations, the errors we see in others are not so obvious when we look in the mirror.

If you suspect your teams are more closed-system than open-system and you feel the organization might benefit from a change in point-of-view, we suggest you introduce a little more diversity in your problem-solving process. Select the staff for a problem-solving team from a variety of departments and include a department that doesn’t have ownership of the problem. Ensure that team composition includes members from different management levels within the organization. Finally, adding representation from your customers and from experts in the field is another way to open up your organization to outside ideas and knowledge.

If you suspect that inertia and closed-system thinking is keeping your organization from becoming truly innovative, let us know what you are doing to open things up.