Organisational inertia is like a cancer. It eats at personal ambition and genuine creativity. At first, it limits progress in organisations which eventually descend into a dysfunctional morass to be reorganised, down-sized or right-sized. In some cases, organisations do not survive.
When that organisation is a very large employer, the collateral damage of organisational inertia is families and communities that rely on the income provided by the jobs that the organisation provides.
When the organisation is an arm of government, the impact ripples much wider through all individuals and commercial operations reliant on a progressive and competitive policy and regulatory environment supported by targeted investment in infrastructure.
Organisational inertia is characterised by an inability to make decisions, an overload of reports and analysis with no apparent action, a stop and start approach to executing tactics as strategy changes year on year or an inability to execute what appear to be robust strategies.
From my experience, the key enabler of avoiding organisational inertia is having an unequivocal goal.
Establishing a single, clear, simply communicated and often communicated goal is the first and most important element in constructing an organisational framework to avoid organisational inertia.
The goal must be single. The story of the martial arts student who approached his teacher with the question, “I’d like to improve my knowledge of the martial arts. In addition to learning from you, I’d like to study with another teacher in order to learn another style. What do you think of this idea?” and received the reply, “The hunter who chases two rabbits catches neither one” is one we should all remember when setting a goal.
The goal must be numeric and it must be time based. “We will reduce costs by 15% within twelve months”. “We will increase our customer satisfaction levels by 25% in six months”. “We will reduce waiting lists for elective surgery by 5000 by the end of 2007”. These are all acceptable goals.
The goal can change from year to year, quarter to quarter, if the organisation is good enough to achieve them in short time frames. Goals should change, as achieving a previous goal will unearth new opportunities and changing organisation environmental factors will change what success looks like.
The goal must be communicated simply and be believable by the people required to deliver the goal. If no-one knows the goal other than senior management, then the intellectual capacity and experience of every single employee outside the management team will be turned to their own view of what the goal should be.
The organisation will not be chasing two rabbits but hundreds of rabbits and organisational inertia will be set rock solid.
It is vitally important that the goal, the organisational strategy and the tactics to get there are communicated often. Everybody filters communication differently, everybody has a preferred communication method; verbal, written or visual and so on. The goal, the strategy and the tactics must be communicated by different means and repeatedly, to make sure everybody “gets it” at their own rate and in their own way.
More than setting the goal and communicating it often, organisations must translate that goal into standards of performance which will allow the goal to be reached. To do this, they must cascade the goal through strategy and tactics to individual job roles.
The objective is not to have documents for the sake of it. It is to make sure that people understand their role and what standards of performance are required to achieve the goal.
The best way to do this is to involve the people who do the tasks. When the goal is clear, people of all walks of life are able to contribute.
That is not to say that organisations should submit themselves to death by committee. Committees are great for sharing information and making recommendations but not for making decisions. The very nature of a committee suggests shared accountability which will set organisational inertia in for the duration of the committee’s tenure.
Individual managers must be held accountable for setting standards of performance. However, subordinates will always know more about how things really work and must be involved in setting standards of performance to “own” the standards and avoid organisational inertia through paying lip service to the standards.
Given the standards of performance are known, the people completing the tasks must have the authority and competence to do so.
When people do not have the competence to execute their roles, time will be lost and/or senior people will be drawn into helping them complete their tasks whilst ignoring their own. When people do not have the authority, escalations in decision making will similarly draw senior managers into unproductive tasks.
Organisational inertia can be overcome. All that is needed to get the ball rolling is a single goal.