Inertia can ambush change

Over the last few years, I came to properly understand this warning from John Kotter about business change:

Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo.

That's from his book Leading Change, which my friend and colleague Wayne recommended to me when our change project was about to be funded. He pointed out we might have made error #2 as enumerated by Kotter, and it could derail our project. That error is:

Error #2: Failing to create a powerful guiding coalition. A team who pull together as a team to improve performance.

Sure we had funding, which implicitly meant we had executive support, but how many people agreed with our problem statement? How many agreed with our vision of the future? The significant funding, going contra to other business units' budgets, appeared to be prima facie evidence that there was support.

Building a guiding coalition sounds like it should be easy. Reading that now, without an immediate business problem which is burning under your chair and making you want to jump up and put it out, I could imagine someone saying "OK, got it. Get people to agree there's a problem, and rally together to fix it".

The catch is, I learned that inertia can ambush you. A business change that's already underway can later be slowed or blocked because inertia to resist that change can spring up; even after you think that possibility has been mitigated. It's not usually malicious or caused by incompetence. What happens is so much more subtle. However subtle though, resistance to change is so predictable that Kotter comments on it when discussing error #1, which is 'allowing too much complacency'.

Complacency inhibits change: past success provides too many resources, reduces our sense of urgency and encourages us to turn inward.

How do seemingly smart and appropriate change initiatives get blocked? Going back in time to some years before you are looking at a situation that you want to change, is a series of successes which have led up to today. In the past, people did a bunch of great things, reaped the rewards, repeated then reinforced those things, and that results in a working system that's been built up over a number of years. It might be the way sales are handled between departments, or the operational workflow for service delivery. There's a resulting system that worked in the context it was born from and was appropriate to for the times, and delivered successful results which led to whatever success that organisation sees today.

However, today, you're looking at the situation, and the environment will have changed, and the competitors will have improved, whilst the weaker competitors already lost along the way. Digital changes or other technology options create new possibilities for handling sales or operations. Yet, the organisation's system will have a momentum that is like a flywheel spinning. Shifting the inertia of a flywheel is hard.

Anyone who was involved for those years of succesful building will look at what they've created with pride, of course. A suggestion that the system needs to be changed will be met with resistance, and defended with the classic "it worked well in the past".

So Kotter goes on to say:

It is not a coincidence transformations often start when a new person is placed in a key role; who does not have to defend past actions.

This lets us go back to the ambush from inertia.
It's quite possible to start a change initiative without having brought enough powerful people to agreement that change is necessary. Note, you can be funded without every stakeholder agreeing to or understanding the urgency. The right mitigation is doing what Kotter calls building a guiding coalition. Those people who are not on board, and who are on the sidelines, can become passive (not actively blocking) and start waiting. At a later time, when there's a hurdle, a doubt, insufficient quick wins, or a lack of measurement, they can become active again and the resistance flares up.

It can be when the resistance flares up that the your change initiative is truly tested. How wide was the coalition support? How deeply understood was the problem statement which launched it? How consistently did people believe in the vision of the future state?

Kotter's book on Leading Change is absolutely a must-read for business leaders. The catch is of course that reading it isn't enough; it is being a practitioner during a major change initiative, whilst thinking about his framework, that will teach you so much more.

If you want some more direct quotes from Kotter which stood out when I was reading his book, I tweeted a storify about this last year. Reflecting on it so many months later, is helping me bed-down the learning.

Some questions to ask yourself if you're driving a change right now:

  • if you suspect a key stakeholder does not support your change, or their posture towards it has changed recently, treat their concern as a priority issue. Do not assume their support will recover by itself; you have to decide to act strategically in response. If they are powerful enough you may need to postpone the change initiative until this is resolved, or you risk failing.
  • continually reassess your guiding coalition, and whether you can increase its membership. Is there anyone missing who you thought might come around in the future?
  • are you absolutely clear on what your key sponsor thinks success looks like? By when? Is it measurable, qualitative, via 360 feedback? Has their view on success changed because of any environmental changes in or around the business?

Like Wayne drew my attention to this book, I hope you gained something and perhaps can also pay it forward.