Weekly business advice:  Be aware of the quiet, slow danger of active inertia

There is no better time to talk about the term active inertia than today, in the age of uncertainty and disruption. According to Donald Sull, a Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, “active inertia is the condition of doing what you’ve always done (and doing it well) but missing the curve in the road.  It’s not what you do that gets you in trouble; it’s when you keep doing what you’ve always done.”

Simply put – in the face of danger, we are doing more of the same. The issue is not that we are not doing things right, the issue is that we are not doing the right things. Active inertia is us being stuck without realizing it, because we are busy being busy – no time to explore other options, to challenge assumptions, which causes an inability to take appropriate action. What he says is that the very commitments that enabled the organization’s initial success are the reason for its future failure, because if we are doing just fine, why should we force ourselves into change?

mondaydots model: active inertia from jeff monday on Vimeo.

Sull’s research suggests that companies respond to the most disruptive market shifts by simply accelerating activities that succeeded in the past.  Managers step on the gas. Rather than escape the rut, they only dig themselves in deeper.

According to Sull, success breeds complacency and arrogance. It creates organizational routines and habits, which eventually become lethal. Relationships become part of this inertia – overtrusting some people and losing others; hindered flow of information and informational filters which prevent top management from hearing the different points of view.

Why does it  happen?
Sull explains that arrogance and success is what usually triggers active inertia. Feeling comfortable being successful, big organizations don’t see the danger coming and think that what they did yesterday will be enough for them to keep being successful tomorrow.

Solution?
The most important thing to accept is that it is the end of certainties in this dynamic world. There is no guarantee, so you have to test heavily. You have to question the processes, the decisions, the old practices. You should get used to consistently revise the strategy, people and relationships and analyze what holds you back. Challenge the old success formulae and ask yourselves where the bottlenecks are. Act quickly and be ruthless when it comes to execution.

All of the questions remain the same, but all of the answers have changed.

* Don’t miss reading the book where the term active inertia comes from:Why Good Companies Go Bad And How Great Managers Remake Them