6 Sure Signs of Business Inertia... and How to Break Free

12/08/2015 09:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The last time most businesspeople heard the word "inertia," was high school physics. If you're like me, that's an experience you would like to forget, so I apologize if I'm dredging up old memories, but stay with me for a moment.

Inertia has two meanings.

The meaning at the heart of this post is the tendency for objects in uniform motion to continue in motion in a straight line, unless acted on by an outside force. Picture a ball gently pushed forward by an astronaut in space. In the absence of an outside force, it will just keep going. The ball in space is an example of what is called active inertia and it is a cancer that can kill any type of organization, regardless of size or industry. Worse, it is a silent killer. Organizations can become entrenched without even realizing it. They mistake action for progress and, unless they realize their predicament and take positive steps to break free, these organizations will eventually wither and die, forever entombed in a rut of their own making.

Active inertia is silent, but it is not invisible. There are 6 sure signs that it has taken hold...or soon will.

Doctrine. Doctrine is the unwavering and unquestionable belief that something is true. It lies at the very heart of some organizations and establishes their direction - without question or adjustment. Sometimes, doctrine can be a positive force, such as when it represents a core value or an absolute good. Sometimes, however, it becomes an anchor.

Tunnel Vision. Organizations often adopt hard and fast rules about the types of people who "fit" as employees and the type of people they want to court as customers. "Our kind of people," they call them. The organizational view of the marketplace, both for sales and recruiting becomes engraved in stone.

Tradition. I have a framed and matted poster in my break room from Despair.com. (Think of the dark side of those Successories posters on teamwork and leadership.) This poster features a large, colorful, glossy picture of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, underneath of which, printed in bold, is the word Tradition. The caption reads "Just because you've always done something that way still doesn't mean it's not incredibly stupid." When a need arises, whether it is to fill a position or pitch a customer, these organizations look through their old files to see and copy what they did before. Processes and meetings undertaken solely because "we've always done it that way" and enough of them will suck out an organization's life force.

Chains. Often, it's not just the doctrine that won't let an organization move forward, it's the people. Stale relationships can chain an organization to the ground. Those relationships, the ones that make even a subtle change of direction absolutely impossible, are on both the inside and the outside.

  • "Bob's been here forever, and he has his methods."
  • "We can't do that. ABC has been our customer for 20 years and they'd never go for that."
  • "People like them have made this company what it is today."

Vow of Silence. "Thou shalt not question." On one of those rare occasions when someone with a different perspective has broken through the organization's walls to question established methods, he or she is shut down. "That's not the way we do things," perhaps tacked on to a patronizing "you'll learn" with one of those infuriating knowing looks.

Blindside Attack. There are many ways to debate a suggestion. One is to address the issue. Quite another is to attack the person. We see the latter in politics all the time. "That's just the type of argument I'd expect from a millionaire." "Of course someone like you would say that." Maybe it's a bit less hostile: "you probably haven't been here long enough to know..." These are called Ad Hominem (against the person) attacks. They shed no light on the issue. Quite the opposite. They signal an unwillingness to even examine it.

Think these symptoms don't exist at your organization? Attend and really listen at 2 or 3 management meetings and you'll hear them. Once you do, you'll know - we're not able to respond to a rapidly shifting marketplace. Keep going this way and you're doomed. Death may come in a stunningly fast crash and burn or after a slow death spiral, but it will come absent change.

So what do you do?

Seek out new voices from outside your normal circle. Solicit advice from people you respect, regardless of industry. Have coffee with people you'd love to work with someday. Assure them that you're not trying to sell them anything. Remember, people hate being sold but love giving advice.

Either way, listen to what these outsiders have to say about your market, your methods, and your people. After just a few of these conversations, you'll see your organization in a whole new light and you'll know whether what's holding you back is a small rut or a death trap.

How will you know if you're doing it right - if you've chosen the right people to talk to? Well, if what they've said makes you uncomfortable, you're on the right path.

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