What Really Kills Great Companies: Inertia

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Gary Hamel:

In most organizations, change comes in only two flavors: trivial and traumatic. Review the history of the average organization and you'll discover long periods of incremental fiddling punctuated by occasional bouts of frantic, crisis-driven change. The dynamic is not unlike that of arteriosclerosis: after years of relative inactivity, the slow accretion of arterial plaque is suddenly revealed by the business equivalent of a myocardial infarction. The only option at that juncture is a quadruple bypass: excise the leadership team, slash head count, dump "non-core" assets and overhaul the balance sheet.

Why does change have to happen this way? Why does a company have to frustrate its shareholders, infuriate its customers and squander much of its legacy before it can reinvent itself? It's easy to blame leaders who've fallen prey to denial and nostalgia, but the problem goes deeper than that. Organizations by their very nature are inertial. Like a fast-spinning gyroscope that can't be easily unbalanced, successful organizations spin around the axis of unshakeable beliefs and well-rehearsed routines--and it typically takes a dramatic outside force to destabilize the self-reinforcing system of policies and practices.

Let me return, for a moment, to the topic of my last post, organized religion. What are some of the inertial forces that have prevented churches from reinventing themselves in ways that might make them more relevant to a post-modern world? A partial list would include:

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Zellmer published on October 4, 2009 5:05 PM.

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