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Three Necessary Ingredients to Disrupt Organizational Inertia

Illustration of the hanging pendulum from seven spheres — Royalty-Free Photo by Lomachevsky

Even if you never studied it in a physics class, you know all about inertia. Inertia is the property of matter that causes it to continue in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless that state is changed by an external force. This is true for rocks, cars, or a playground swing. An object at rest tends to stay at rest.

Newton's First Law of Motion regarding inertia also states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced external force. Consider an object in free fall, a spacecraft in outer space, or a soccer ball in motion. They continue to move forward due to their inertia until friction, air resistance, gravity, or another force slows them down.

As you have undoubtedly experienced, the same is true for both human behavior and organizations. You and I exemplify the concept of inertia. We have a tendency to procrastinate, stick to routines and habits even when they are no longer beneficial or necessary, and delay taking action. Our default position is to naturally resist change, unless disrupted by an external force. That force could be a new feeling or external motivation, a new rule, procedure, or law. I've felt this before, and I'm guessing you have too.

Well, the same is true with inertia in organizations. In fact, research shows there are five main types of organizational inertia:

  1. Bureaucratic Inertia: Large organizations, particularly government agencies, schools, colleges, and established corporations, often exhibit bureaucratic inertia. This refers to the resistance to change and the tendency to maintain existing policies, procedures, and structures, even when they may be inefficient or outdated.

  2. Organizational Culture: An organization's culture can develop its own form of inertia. Employees may resist changes to the culture, making it difficult for new leadership or management practices to take hold.

  3. Strategic Inertia: Organizations may become stuck in their existing strategies and fail to adapt to changing market conditions or student/customer preferences. They may continue with the same strategies, even when they are no longer effective.

  4. Technological Inertia: Some organizations resist adopting new technologies, even when those technologies could improve efficiency or competitiveness. This technological inertia can hinder innovation and growth.

  5. Employee Inertia: Employees within an organization can exhibit inertia in terms of resisting new processes, technologies, or work practices. This resistance can slow down efforts to improve productivity or implement changes.

In these human and organizational contexts, inertia refers to the resistance to change and the tendency to maintain existing patterns or systems. Combating organizational inertia can be a challenging but crucial endeavor, especially within education, which needs to constantly adapt to changing environments.

I used to think you had to be in the system to change the system. I actually had previous supervisors and mentors tell me that. But after banging my head against the metaphorical wall for years - and experiencing organizational inertia firsthand - I learned the opposite is, in fact, true. The significant force must be external.

It's important to recognize that change is often met with resistance. You can anticipate and count on that. So, addressing resistance proactively is one key to success. Overcoming organizational inertia requires a multifaceted approach that combines three specific ingredients: External thought leadership, a redefined model of professional development, and broad employee engagement.

External Thought Leaders

If you want to change and advance your institution from the inside, you need to bring in subject matter experts and thought leaders from the outside. As the old proverb states, "You are never a prophet in your own land." But I'm not talking about hiring just any consulting firm. Whom you trust to bring inside your culture should articulate a clear and compelling vision for change, emphasizing the benefits and reasons for the transformation. For educational institutions, this message has to be student-centered, data-guided, and mission-driven. I know you are brilliant and capable…but you simply can't combat organizational inertia alone from the inside, regardless of classification, title, or rank.

Professional Development Redefined

Yes, communication must be effective and persuasive. Oration is a skill. All internal stakeholders need to hear energetic and articulate messages (over time) to help them truly understand the need for change, the goals, and the expected outcomes. But just a good message isn’t enough. To move the needle forward fast, your professional development structure must intentionally target both the mind and the heart. This is best accomplished through multiple, diverse voices from different perspectives to ensure both penetration and saturation of the message. You already know that not every colleague will connect with every speaker's style nor their content. A monotone voice with a brilliant strategy or superb PowerPoint slides will fail. A "motivational speaker" without relevant context nor subject matter expertise will also fail. One inspiring speaker at one point in time without follow-up and local applicability will similarly fail. To break organizational inertia, communication must be dynamic, over time, from different perspectives, with actionable follow-up. Did you catch that? That is how we redefine professional development to actually be effective. Multiple dynamic voices…over time…who each see the world differently…and it can not be a one-and-done experience. If that is not the structure of your current professional development efforts, that is a great place to start.

Broad Inclusion

The third ingredient is that your PD effort needs to be made available to everyone. We know from decades of research that you must authentically involve the vast majority of employees in any organizational change process to be successful. You cannot send an elite few to a conference and truly expect them to bring back the wisdom and motivation they received, falsely anticipating it to be transferred to others who didn't have the same shared experience. Instead, everyone should be invited to participate - from the elected school board members and Trustees, to every support staff member and front office clerk. We must bring the learning experience to where the employees are, asynchronously, and on demand. Encourage them to participate, learn, listen, and engage whenever their schedule allows. And of course, actively solicit them to share their insights, concerns, and ideas for improvement through meaningful survey and convenings.

You can always anticipate inertia. It's a reliable constant. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to respectfully disrupt the inertia with these three systemic approaches. Facilitate bringing external thought leadership to your institution, in a PD structure that includes various voices over time, with broad employee engagement. Regardless of whether you partner with or if you organically do it on your own, years of experience and countless research studies have shown us that this is the path forward.

Your organization needs an external force to begin to pivot. Your communities and employers are craving a change. And your students are ready.

Anticipate inertia. Choose to disrupt its existing state of rest or its uniform motion.

I invite you to join me in being a respectful disruptor.

It's time.

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