Why Inertia Kills Companies

A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A business at rest tends to die.

The enemy of most large companies is "the way it's always been." Companies that are held back by inertia are destined to have their lunch eaten by faster, hungrier competitors. But it doesn't have to be that way.

We're in the middle of an innovation revolution where technology is driving everything from the modern farming tractor that feeds a village to the defibrillator that keeps someone alive. Nearly every company relies on technology to remain globally competitive. But therein lies the challenge. When it comes to technology, delivering late is not an option.

Here's the big story behind the fall of giants: the way they make and act on decisions is fundamentally broken. What we in the technology field call the agile methodology (popularized even more by the Lean Startup movement) has the power to change this dynamic.

When famous failures happen, the board usually looks to the leadership of the company and starts making drastic changes. (Adios, CEO.) But many times, a leader's inability to execute is due to paralyzing inertia that runs deep throughout the fabric of an entire company. The lack of ability to change fast, turn on a dime and react to market demands prevents them from delivering the right thing fast enough.

Take Dyson vacuum. The company created a series of vacuums that looked nothing like anything the consumer had ever seen before (such as the Dyson ball), but also worked impeccably. CEO James Dyson and his team are well-known for ignoring the forces of the market and delivering innovative designs based on their own patented technology. This type of vision left competitors like Hoover, Oreck and others in a flat-footed, reactive position in an industry that was viewed as relatively stagnant for years.

Kodak, like Dyson's competitors, couldn't escape its own inertia, despite being in a position of leadership for an incredibly long time. Sometimes, companies don't know when to walk away in favor of what may seem a riskier or more innovative bet (in Kodak's case, film versus digital). Kodak invented some of the first digital camera technology in 1975—15 to 20 years before digital photography started being adopted by the mainstream consumer! But, the appeal of continuing to invest in its profitable film division prevented Kodak from iterating, testing concepts and moving fast enough to beat their competitors to market.

So how do we fix it? Some of the companies that "always were innovative" can't rely on the fact that they've "always been leaders" to carry them through. Grammarians call it the past tense for a reason. To keep up with faster and more nimble competitors of the future, companies need to change from within. It's incredibly painful sometimes, but necessary to survive. Evolve or die.

The first step is to get Agile, with a capital "A." Agile is so much more than a marketing buzzword or something developers do with their headphones on in their cubicles. It's a way of working that represents the future of innovation. The ability to make a decision, trace it down to the execution level and deliver relentlessly in short, iterative bursts will make things happen faster. If you fail, you fail much faster. You change things incrementally, and you start to deliver again in another quick burst.

And when you do get it right, victory is oh so sweet. When you do succeed (and you will), you will succeed much faster.

So why aren't more companies doing this? Inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Decisions mired in bureaucracy tend to take much longer. But all it takes is one passionate advocate to help a concept like Agile spread throughout an entire organization, changing the way decisions are made and products are delivered.

It's time we learned from famous failures beyond the MBA classroom or Monday morning quarterbacking. As the leaders of today's innovative companies, we need to take control. We need to be the passionate advocates for changing the way we work for the better. Do we want to be held back by the force of inertia? Or do we want to experience this thrilling new vortex of innovation that helps us create faster, better. Fail faster. Or better yet, build the right thing when the market is ready.

This is the future of how we win.

[Image: Flickr user Elvin]

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