25 years ago I set up a jazz band whilst living in Sydney and for a short while was making more money from jazz than work…a reflection of my lowly status in the corporate world at the time no doubt rather than my talent as a musician. For a while, we used to rehearse / busk at Circular Quay just by the Customs House…and that’s where I really started to understand the concept of inertia. The first challenge was to attract an audience and luckily the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge were there to help with that. First one person, then a couple and finally a group would stop and face the bay looking out at the incredible view. Then gradually they would turn inwards to face us and slowly move forward so that we were surrounded by a hundred people or so. The trick then was to play a short set, 2-3 pieces, and then stop for a short break. That way we achieved maximum earnings and dispersed the crowd so that we could attract a new one. Whilst maintaining a good crowd by continuing to play was attractive for the ego, it was a disaster for the pot!
As I contemplate a period of relative quiet between my current and my future role (a first in almost 30 years of work!), the word ‘inertia’ has been in my mind frequently, and certainly in the thoughts of my wife as she contemplates me being at home for a few weeks!
We don’t need to go beyond Isaac Newton for a definition which is as good as it gets for the properties of inertia:
The vis insita, or innate force of matter, is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavours to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line.
We are all susceptible to it…it is a truly human characteristic. One of my warm up exercises when I’m giving a speech to fellow project managers, to try and explain the challenge of change beyond the theoretical is to ask three simple questions:
- Was the route they took to work this morning different from the usual?
- Did they get coffee from a different coffee shop this morning to the one that they usually frequent?
- Did they get dressed in a different order (ie right sleeve of the shirt first as opposed to left, right sock first etc)?
If the answer to any of these is yes, they can sit down. I usually find 50% at least still standing….and that is for an audience which deals with change all the time and is relatively comfortable for the concept.
Inertia is the killer of most projects. be they complex, simple, technology based or strategic. I’m convinced that one of the challenges which we face as project managers is the fact that we mostly end up dealing with minorities. The 10% of acolytes and the 10% of resisters are the ones that get our attention and potentially the attention of our stakeholders. The 80% of people who sit between these two polar opposites are either ignored or dealt with on a broad, non-personalised and commoditised basis. And yet we all recognise that a small movement in this population is worth all the conversions of resisters in a lifetime of projects…it might not be as glamorous or as personally satisfying but it will make for a successful project.
So, what does it require to create some movement from that straight line of uniformity as described by Mr Newton? No doubt you have many good strategies which I’d love to hear about. From my perspective, there seem to be a few things which one can do to create a small chink of light / change:
- Anticipation: Anticipating the likely objections for change and creating a valid, logical and emotional case for these is critical. The change that’s proposed needs to appeal to the heart as much as it does the head particularly for those who’ve been in the area affected for a long time. Even if you’re not hearing the objections, they will be there and they need to be answered.
- Segmentation: The reality is that the 80% will be composed of many different types of people with different motivations, ideas and plans. Breaking them down further has got to be a sensible strategy to build a case which is tailored and appropriate.
- Highly public exclusion: This is perhaps the nuclear bomb of change management…the active and highly public exclusion of certain small groups from initiatives. Not inviting people to the party can have an incredible impact on their willingness to engage and wish to get involved.
This is again, a huge subject and one where I’d like to spark a debate amongst those in this group. Thoughts on the challenge, ideas on solutions, examples of things that have and haven’t worked, all would be welcome. I look forward to hearing from you!