Car in Snowbank in winter

Getting Beyond Change Inertia

Posted on Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Project Management
By Erik Van Slyke, Managing Director, www.erikvanslyke.com

While driving during a horrible snowstorm, a young project manager became disoriented and lost.  Thankfully, he remembered what his father had once told him: ''If you ever get stuck in a snowstorm, wait for a snow plow and follow it.'' Within a few minutes, a snow plow came by, and he started to follow it.  He followed the plow for about 45 minutes.

Finally, the driver of the truck got out and asked him what he was doing.  He explained that his dad had told him if he ever got stuck in the snow, to follow a plow.  The driver nodded and said, ''Well, that’s very good advice.  Now that I'm done with the parking lot here at shopping mall, you can follow me over to the supermarket.''

The biggest challenge when implementing organizational change is not resistance, it is inertia.  Resistance by definition is an active force of opposition.  It implies that there are two sides working toward different objectives.  Inertia, on the other hand, is the tendency of a body to preserve its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.  Inertia can be the same as being stuck in a rut or routine.

For example, two years after the implementation of an HR-ERP technology, more than 40% of the human resources generalists for a media and technology company continued to maintain their individual Excel files with employee data.  The data in the system was so out of date and inaccurate that when one new division manager ran a report to find out the name, job title, salary and last performance rating of his staff, only one of twenty names was correct.

The company spent millions of dollars configuring the system, cleansing and inputting data, and reworking processes and jobs to maintain the data integrity.  In the end, it was made useless by the inertia of employees happy with their current system.

When asked why they continued to use their separate Excel files, the HR generalists replied, “I’ve done it that way for years,” “It was easier than learning the new system” and “I never trusted the new tool.”  After the company mandated that generalists, and subsequently data entry clerks and employees, maintain the data in the system, the generalists still insisted upon retaining their Excel databases, doubling their data entry workload.   As one generalist defended, “Although it takes at least two hours every week to check and recheck the data on both systems, I feel more secure about the reliability of the information.”

Even project leaders get stuck in a change management rut.  A project manager for a different technology initiative continued to drive her original project plan months after she learned the specifications would not meet customer expectations.  “My job is to complete the project,” she said.  “I tried to understand customer requirements, but they weren’t clear and it was taking too long.  I needed to maintain a consistent schedule.”

These stories remind me of the Air Force Inertia Axiom: Consistency is always easier to defend than correctness.  To break the inertia and move people in the direction of change here are three key steps:

  • Create Dissatisfaction (With the Status Quo).  The motivation for change must be generated before change can occur.  So, the sooner you create dissatisfaction with the status quo, the sooner you will get people in motion.  Since dissatisfaction is emotional, not intellectual, facts and stats won’t cut it.  You have to tell a story that challenges beliefs and hits people between the eyes.  Make it real.  Make it personal.  The strong reactions you get are exactly what you need to knock people out of their routines.
  • Fill the Void.  Once you cause pain, you have to offer fast pain relief.  The status quo must be replaced by an alternative before the dissonance sends people back to the safety of the solution they know.  Most importantly, don’t provide one new solution, provide a few.  This gets people engaged in the process of defining the future.  Once they define it, they will own it, and you have helped them go from inertia to action.
  • Draw the Map.  While it feels great to know where you are going, it feels even better to know how you are going to get there.  Once the destination is defined, project leaders must quickly define the roadmap that will take the organization to the future.  It must provide enough of the step-by-step detail to create comfort, but not so much to create complacency.  The unanswered questions become a great tool to keep people engaged.

Use these three steps each time you see inertia in a project leader, team member or in your everyday interactions with employees.  The extra push will help them get unstuck from mud, snow or the status quo.