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Change Inertia

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to sit down and enjoy coffee with a colleague dealing with a daunting business process re-engineering task.  She’s working with a client that has not leveraged technology well in their current business processes.  Management recently hired a new CIO who has been hard at work getting approval and buy-in at the management level to automate many processes, but she’s finding great resistance actually implementing the improvements at every level.

Most of our talk surrounded change management and pacing, especially the concept of Change Inertia.  Change inertia is a lot like g-forces for jet fighters.  When companies change (be it processes, strategies or almost anything) they build up inertia.  Higher positive inertia makes changes easier.  When they don’t change, their inertia reduces.  When it reduces below zero, it becomes harder to overcome that negative inertia to implement change.

Change inertia applies strongly to soft areas – organizations, people and culture.  Processes and technology don’t care.

When a company has low or negative change inertia, generally it has become very comfortable with the “status quo” and change will be scary.  Extra care has to be taken to manage the pace of changes and minimize the discomfort (and potential impact) involved.

I’ve seen many companies that claim they want change (individuals or the organization), but the culture has very low change inertia, making implementing change incredibly difficult.  When there’s a major difference in the tolerance for change in any of the three areas (organization, people, culture), stumbles can occur easily.  Generally, pacing for the slowest group results in the least pain, but sometimes the changes simply can’t wait. That’s where skill in change management comes in – making the bug jumps seem like little ones.

What did I offer my colleague?  Start with little wins to build up confidence and inertia.  Take the big project, and break off some smaller, more manageable chunks to re-engineer.  Prove the benefits and get people comfortable with changes, then you’ll get more buy-in. She might even find that after a while, they drive the changes for her!

Do you have experience with change management situations like this?  Share your stories!

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