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

“The tendency of an object to resist changes in its state of motion varies with mass. Mass is that quantity that is solely dependent upon the inertia of an object. The more inertia that an object has, the more mass that it has. A more massive object has a greater tendency to resist changes in its state of motion”

It’s Monday afternoon, a clear day and my thoughts are turning to the difference between great business change programs and the reasonable to good and dare I say it in the early days, the not quite as great as might have been.

What did we underestimate or even presume? Well, I have come to realise that inertia, in its definitions as a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged is quite often and literally the Master of Strategic deployment success.

Companies structured in silos as they were from their origin, reward systems that recognise incremental achievement in repetitious tasks and processes, and cultures that either negated or feared risk (perhaps not in words, although often in the way things are done around here).

Executive overfamiliarity with roles and the essential human condition to favour pleasure over pain and certainly to avoid change, if a feeling of not being successful is imminent.

Our brain likes being in control. The hunger for certainty is one of the five foundations of our behaviour and we know that uncertainty generates a strong alert response in our limbic system; that’s why we worry. Change itself brings uncertainty and this uncertainty feeds our fears. That’s why we speculate—we’d rather create a fictional story than not know what will happen.

Put these factors together and you have our aptly described “inertia principle”.

To the Talisman who often breaks this group inertia and the outsider looking in who starts with the desire of one possibly two people, probably board and certainly a CEO who wants or needs change to improve business position and performance.

The “Sinek” why or how begins the narrative. How could we do this differently, better never sleeps, is there a better way?

The statement doesn’t start change, it’s always the question that commences the change journey and then facing into the inertia, often with a progressive board and/or trusty advisor by their side begins the journey of change. So key lessons to lead through change are to firstly identify the rationale, strategy, pathway, risks and rewards clearly, and to not recognise “the inertia principle” builds the tower upon a sandy base.

This is one of the reasons I like the Kotter model being the “creation of a winning coalition” of likeminded people who are legitimately asking the same questions.

Often large retail, franchise and commerce change programs stumble here because they try to sway the hearts and minds of too many candidly, better to build in small groups and stages enjoying wins along the way. Momentum rather than mass change will ultimately break the group inertia.

However, there are also some dramatic situations where a second physicists’ definition of inertia could apply.

“That inertia is a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”

That external force may be a specific survival strategy or even the act of an administrator, necessary for war, although less so for peacetime.

So, what can we learn, other than the initial organisational diagnosis and cultural reflection, to break down the inertia principle?

Our friends at assured strategy tell us that:

Employees have to know the WHY. Most people are not motivated to change unless the vision of what the change will bring (positive reward) is stronger and more powerful than the comfortability of staying in the current state. Even if the current state is not ideal, the fear of the unknown will keep people and organizations stuck. The first principle of change management is a leader’s need to paint a vision of what the change will bring.

Stay the course. Leaders can expect a company or individuals to naturally want to gravitate toward old norms. Anticipate this and implement strategies to combat this natural reaction. Ideas include making change into a game, a friendly competition, a daily conversation, a celebration of the small milestones towards the goal, etc. Keep the change visible, talk about it frequently, and make it as engaging as possible. Allow for the fact that it takes at least a month for new habits and behaviours to become habitual coupled with the leaders /advocates always communicating the why. On this point, expect meaningful change, especially cultural, to take anywhere between 2-5 years,

It’s the long play, the journey, the narrative of the company that just takes time In hindsight, we have often found our most successful projects really start to pay dividends -6- 12 months into a project, Anything less does not change its repair.

Changing how an organization works is not easy although incredibly rewarding done well. Many different moving parts have to come together for a change to take root and build up enough inertia to pass the tipping point. Unfortunately, because of misalignment, misunderstanding or poor execution, change programs don’t always win the day.

Ever pulled that dusty advisor report out of the folders and thought “Wonder what happened there?

Brian Walker is founder and CEO of Retail Doctor Group, a retail advisory and consultancy group and the Australian elected partner member of the global retail expert’s alliance Ebeltoft Group.

Have a look at previous articles written by the experts at Retail Doctor Group:

  1. Seeing the game differently – The strategic Aha moment
  2. Retail Doctor Group & Mindarc’s expert guide to implementing an effective “Click and Collect” model
  3. The DNA of the evolving retail space