As the twentieth century began, navies in only a half-dozen countries were experimenting with a new type of watercraft – the submarine. Invented in its most recent and most useable form by Irish immigrant and schoolteacher John Philip Holland, most traditional navy officers didn’t like submarines, did not understand how submarines could be deployed or used, and did not want them.
Torpedoes had been the weakest component of submarine warfare until the technicians at Vickers, Limited, a British firm, came up with a revolutionary improvement. For the first time a long-range torpedo with a large warhead that could travel at a high rate of speed.
But there were a few who could see well into the future and imagine how submarines could expand a navy’s fighting capacity. Those visionaries were persistent and vocal to the point they convinced the U.S. Navy to build a torpedo factory an Newport, Rhode Island.
As the factory became a major component of the area’s economy the predictable began to happen. Creativity and productivity slowed to a trickle. Any attempts to change things resulted in forceful and high-level pushback. Unproductive or insubordinate employees could not be fired because politicians always intervened. Inertia, monumental inertia set in. Once it did only minor refinements resulted.
Some may object that this example is typical of government contracted work and bureaucracy. But sadly it is not. Consider the following:
Thomas Watson, president of IBM, in 1943, said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
In 1946, Darryl Zanuck, executive at 20th Century Fox, said “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
In 1977, Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, said “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse,” a spectacularly wrong prediction by Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com made in 1995.
All of the above are indicators of monumental inertia, of leaders wanting things to stay as they are. “Monumental” has more than one meaning. It means gigantic, huge, bigger than big. It also means an honored tribute, a reverence and respect for and a sense of duty and responsibility towards.
- We fall in love with the past. We know it. We understand it. We like it…a lot. We’re comfortable in it. We’ve learned how to manage it and become apprehensive about embarking into the seas of change.
- We tend not to see flaws, inadequacies, or obsolescence…and resent those who point them out. Like living in the same house for a long time, when you decide to sell, the real estate agent will see things that the buyer will see but that the seller doesn’t. Often, perhaps almost all of the time, the resident (that’s us) have lived with a house for so long we do not notice how it is showing its age and history. The same principle applies in business and organizational leadership. Methods, processes, thinking patterns, and systems may have served us well but objects of veneration they are not. It is very, very easy to build monument to the past and validate our work by our faithfulness to what was.
- We think that being busy is as good as being productive. Activity is not progress. It’s activity. Busyness is not business. Yet maintaining a full schedule is often substituted for maintaining a productive schedule. Review everything all the time to make certain the movement is forward not circular.
- The choices we make either lock the past onto the future or they change the future. Nothing happens until someone decides to do something and makes that decision by thinking differently than she did yesterday. Changes happen because changes are made.
Here’s what to do with inertia-induced thinking:
- While we may be able to control and throttle back progress and productivity within a small context, we can do nothing about controlling either in the rest of the world. It seems symptomatic of leaders who believe they can stop the earth from rotating, cause the tides to cease, or reverse the inevitable march to tomorrow. We can’t and should never embrace the thought…not even for a moment. To do nothing is to entertain the delusion that things outside our control will remain the same. They won’t.
- It’s better keep up than to try and catch up. In 2012, Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers embarked on a brave new program to become tech friendly and tech savvy. After listening to and examining their proposals and their timeline it became obvious to everyone but them that even if they were to enact every proposal on schedule they would be even with today five years from now making them five years behind even as they “caught up.” They assumed that tech would remain the same. FYI, one of their more user-friendly proposals was to install credit card readers at each service desk throughout the store, eliminating the need for customers to make their purchases through the checkout counters at the front. Their schedule called for the card readers to be operational by September, 2012. I was in a Lowe’s store last week (March, 2015). The card readers still don’t work. What’s new today is obsolete tomorrow. It you’re going to overcome inertia and plunge ahead, plan to plunge far ahead. Don’t be timid about it.
- Pushback is inevitable so expect it. Change is seldom easy for most workers. Humans like space they can control because it gives us a sense of security. Inertia reinforces that feeling. Movement makes control less, well, controllable. A car is simple to control when it is standing still. But when it’s moving it becomes more difficult. There are more things to attend to, more dangers to be aware of. People like control and pushback when they lose it.
- It will require more effort to get going than it will to keep going. Inertia is strongest at the start. Once the ball starts rolling, centrifugal force begins to assist our efforts. The dynamic forces of possibility and probability overcome the resistant forces of fear and comfort. Once we get into it, we actually do begin to enjoy the ride.
If a leader has not overcome inertia personally, professionally, and practically, s/he is not really leading. S/he is managing. Leadership is always movement and progress. Management is always monitoring and process.