Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Inertia – the killer of innovation and change

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:

  1. Was the route they took to work this morning different from the usual?
  2. Did they get coffee from a different coffee shop this morning to the one that they usually frequent?
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!


Categories: Change management, Complex transformation, Consulting, Defying gravity, human behaviour, Human Capital, Jazz, Learning, psychology, Systems led change, Transformation

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12 replies

  1. Another great article/topic Ben.. Inertia indeed, insurers are cursed by it more so than most !

    Best of luck with the transition on your side.. seems some further change is also in the wind on my side..

    Cheers, Damian


  2. Interesting topic. Helping people “to get comfortable … being uncomfortable” was my initial thought, and also have a rythme for change.

    Used to work in a company where our slogan was “Change Again” (guess the company name), where every 12 months you could expect something new, starting at the new FY.

    The challenge is then to ensure there is a real meaning/substance to the recuring change.


    • Powerful concept, Gonzague..there are a few organisations that I know who practice that idea in terms of mobility. Being in one post for more than 24 months is not encouraged and has a negative bearing on career development. The issue of substance is also interesting….you could argue that if it’s part of the culture of the business, that starts to address the requirement.


  3. Interesting topic. Helping people “to get comfortable … being uncomfortable” was my initial thought, and also have a rythme for change.

    Used to work in a company where our slogan was “Change Again” (guess the company name), where every 12 months you could expect something new, starting at the new FY.

    The challenge is then to ensure there is a real meaning/substance to the recuring change.


  4. I’m slow. Spell this one out for me: “As I contemplate a period of relative quiet between my current and my future role (a first in almost 30 years of work!)…”


  5. Hi Ben, I’ve been meaning to reply and let you know that my approach to gaining change momentum is to stop trying to be a perfectionist!

    I used to try and convince everyone that the change is good. Fortunately, I’ve learned that to do this requires significant effort, especially when trying to engage the vocal 10-15% and convince them to change their attitude towards the change, detracting me from the main game – to make the change happen.

    So now I listen to what the vocal few have to say, but do this only once. Then I focus all my efforts on identifying and engaging the 10-15% of early adopters, who love anything new and who want to be a part of it. They become my ‘change champions’ and help me crank the handle of change and get the wheel to start moving, thereby starting the momentum that brings the silent majority along for the ride. Generally, they (the majority) are happy to get on the bus, once it starts to move.

    As to the vocal few, I really don’t care what they do. Join in or miss the bus – it’s up to them at that stage.

    Good luck with your next move.

    Cheers… Greg


    • Thanks as ever for your response….it is much appreciated! I’m with you on the ‘adopt or be damned!’ strategy, it’s certainly a lot simpler as a project manager to act on that basis. My challenge, as articulated in the next blog, however is what if the project was defined in terms of success, by the level of adoption / or engagement? What if, as part of the gateway approval process, engagement was measured as the key measure before the project was allowed to go ahead? We always seem to think about our work as defined in the classic design / develop / implement framework…how would that change as a consequence of the single measure of success around engagement? I think it’s worth playing with this a little. Similarly to your concept of ‘pre mortem’, dealing with an adoption challenge at the very beginning of the process may well create a different approach. Just a thought!


      • Yes, it would change the focus is engagement was the success measure.

        To this end, if compliance was the measure, then my experience is that the ‘noisy few’ know that they need to speak up ahead of the change to have any chance of influencing the outcome. Once the change goes in, they settle down and get on with it.

        If the KPI is more of a broad based engagement measure, it would need to be undertaken at different points in time. In this situation, getting the wheel turning will help establish momentum. Once moving, you can speed-up or slow down or change direction based on feedback from periodic measures. Engaging with the noisy few through this process will help you decide the extent to which you need to modify your approach. However, don’t lose sight of leveraging the early adopters to build momentum with the bulk of the population.

        Some people never get over a change and will still reference the ‘good old days’. Being mindful of this should help you prioritise your efforts and ensure the overarching majority of the population are engaged and have embraced the change in a sustainable way.


  6. Interesting ideas, Greg…I agree that taking an engagement measure at various times during the programme would be a good plan. Overall, the feedback from the ‘noisy few’ starts to give you some qualitative measurement as well around the strength of resistance and the potential case to be put across.



  1. Anchoring….a challenge for corporates as it is for individuals? – Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

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