How to Kill Your #1 Enemy: Inertia

Last Updated Sep 13, 2010 11:50 PM EDT

Kill InertiaThis morning's Wall Street Journal headline read Geithner Warns Against Inertia. I'm no fan of the Treasury Secretary, but in this case, he's dead on. He's referring to Washington grid-lock threatening our fragile economic recovery, but I'm talking about the number one threat to every company, executive team, and manager: Inertia.

Inertia's your enemy, folks, for the simple reason that, for the most part, the competitive market is a zero-sum game. If your company's the market leader and everything's going smoothly, that just means your competitors are scrambling, innovating, and strategizing ways to eat away at your market share and take you down.

If you're not hot on the trail of the next big product innovation or figuring out ways to improve organizational performance and operating efficiency, you can bet your job that someone else is. And you probably are -- betting your job.

Inertia kills companies, products, and careers. Great leaders have known this for a long time.

Intel's former chief executive Andy Grove's seminal philosophy and book, Only the Paranoid Survive, was a warning against leadership, strategic, and organizational inertia. Grove built that philosophy into Intel's culture, from its fluid management structure to the way it confronts competition and conflict. That's how Intel became the technology powerhouse it is today.

The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, which means continuous improvement or incremental change, is all about constantly moving forward and never saying, "This is good enough." Toyota may have had its problems of late, but Kaizen is how it grew from an economy car company to the world's largest automobile maker.

Don't get me wrong. Execution is a key component in business success. But if you simply follow an operating plan, putting one foot in front of the other, day in and day out, inertia will kill you. Here are five ways to stop it.

  1. Strategic planning. So your company has an annual operating plan. Great, you need that. But if that's all you've got, then your company will not survive. It's that simple. I don't care how you do it, but every company needs to have some sort of strategic process for stopping the day-to-day inertia, determining what's going on inside and outside its four walls, anticipating what might happen, and planning for it.
  2. SWOT. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. SWOT analysis is a simple and incredibly effective way for any company or organization to determine how it's doing relative to the competitive market. For SWOT to be effective, though, it must be genuine, no BS or sugar-coating, and relative to the competition, with as real-time competitive G2 as you can get.
  3. 360. Don't wait for management or HR to mandate it; conduct a 360 on yourself. Source your boss, his boss, your employees, your peers, and if you're in a support organization like HR, IT, or marketing, your key stakeholders, the people you serve. What you primarily want to know is what you can do better or differently to help them do their jobs more effectively. And don't forget to follow up with them on critical action items.
  4. Brainstorm. Periodically get your group together for a brainstorm session to determine what you can and should be doing differently to operate more effectively. It doesn't matter whether you run a product development, marketing, sales, or finance group, the process is essentially the same. Start out with an inspirational pitch to get the neurons firing, then start asking questions and writing down the responses. Afterwards, coalesce into actions and plans.
  5. Question conventional wisdom, management doctrine, the status quo. Stop, think, ask questions, and don't accept BS for answers. And make it not only acceptable but essential that your people all do the same. Enough said.
Image CC 2.0 via Flickr user bitmask