Overcoming Institutional Inertia to Lead Change

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(DoD photo by Airman 1st Class Greg L. Davis, U.S. Air Force)
(DoD photo by Airman 1st Class Greg L. Davis, U.S. Air Force)

Change is difficult–leading revolutionary change in large organizations requires overcoming institutional inertia.

At dusk, I watched four combat loaded F-16 fighters taxi out to strike targets on the first night of Operation Iraqi Freedom as my engineers were affixing the final solar-powered LED taxiway edge lights to the pavement of our desert air base. Had I gotten my way, that might not have been the case. You see, during the planning phase months before I had insisted on a traditional airfield system with wires. I didn’t want to risk the solution my team innovated–too risky. They had found solar-powered harbor buoy lights, and they tried to convince me to buy them rather than going with a traditional design. I turned them down.

Fortunately for me, and those F-16 pilots taxiing out on the first combat mission of the night, my team decided to risk my ire and bought a bunch of those buoy lights while I was away for a few days to brief our headquarters on our progress. When I returned, I was upset with them for disobeying me, but in the end their risk-taking enabled us to accomplish our mission rather than my reticence. It’s a lesson I took to heart.

Institutional Inertia

One of the reasons innovation is very difficult in large organizations is revolutionary change requires innovation, and that requires leaders to overcome “institutional inertia.”

“Institutional inertia” is my term for the resistance to change in groups, particularly in larger organizations. In physics, the “inertia” is a body’s resistance to the state of motion.  For example, if a body is at rest, you have to overcome its inertia to get it moving. “Institutional inertia” works the same way. It’s the collective weight of established processes, individuals’ self-interest, and even outside stakeholders’ pressure to remain at the status quo. The larger the organization, the higher the institutional inertia, and the harder it is to move that organization in a different direction. In the case of the buoy lights turned taxiway lights, I was the biggest source of that inertia–and when I was gone the team succeeded without me.

When discussing this concept with people, I usually revert to a nautical example. Consider two vessels: a giant oil tanker and a speedboat. The speedboat will turn on a dime, just like a small organization is easy to change. A leader of a small organization can “turn the wheel” of his “speedboat” and it quickly responds. The oil tanker takes a long time to turn, and it certainly doesn’t turn quickly–especially if it has a “full head of steam” on a given course. Just like the captain of an oil tanker, when the leader of a large organization wants to make a change, then he must plan out the change well in advance and it takes a long time effect that change. That’s “institutional inertia.”

21st Century Leaders Must Respond Rapidly

The challenge for large organizations in the 21st Century is to rapidly respond to changing conditions. Extending the nautical metaphor a bit, it’s like trying to move cargo like the big ships with the agility of the speedboat. Understanding and reducing institutional inertia is crucial to increasing agility. Time to Market for most market sectors is shortening–particularly in the tech and service sectors. One of the reasons we no longer use Blackberry devices is because Research In Motion passed on the opportunity to be an early adopter of the touch screen interface. Google and Samsung, on the other hand, saw the opportunity and despite being a large company, seized the chance to bring disruptive technology into the market. That example is less about capital or marketing, and more about leadership vision and agility. So what was the difference?

Examples of companies that failed to recognize and adapt to rapidly changing market conditions are legion, but the reasons for those failures to adapt are usually not because the CEO was a curmudgeon. In most cases large organizations who failed to adapt can attribute that failure to a slow recognition of a changing environment, and a slow response to the change when they finally saw it. Kodak inventing and then failing to adapt digital photography is another example–Kodak once had a camera or film in almost everyone’s hand. Today you’d be hard pressed to find one. Similarly, Swiss watch manufacturers failed to recognize the promise of electronic timing–how could a watch be anything other than gears and springs?

Leadership and Culture Drive Innovation—Or Not

So how do agile organizations manage to rapidly adapt to changing situations? Two words: leadership and culture. It’s leaders who create a culture of innovation and agility by empowering people to take risks and make decisions. A corollary to this idea is that senior leaders have to be willing to listen to new ideas, and take reasonable risks by adopting new ideas. Just like my engineering team’s innovative solution to the taxiway edge lights, people need to be willing to present and tenaciously defend innovation. Furthermore, leaders must be willing to step out and accept those risks. When I returned to my desert air base and found out my team disobeyed me, I had a choice. I could have reversed course and forced my own solution after-the-fact, but in the end I decided to accept the fait d’accompli and accept the risk. When leaders allow innovation and accept risk beforehand then organizations can be agile. If agility is the ability of an organization to innovate and take risks, then the measure of an organization’s agility is in direct proportion to leadership’s committment to innovation and acceptance of risk taking. When leaders encourage innovation and reward risk taking, then organizations can rapidly respond to changing conditions.

The key takeaway is leaders drive innovation and agility.

The Courage to Innovate in Large Organizations

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Practical Leadership

10-Hardest-Life-Fish-BowlInnovation in any large organization requires courage–courage from senior leaders right down to the front line worker. If done with courage and clear vision, then leaders can develop a true culture of innovation–a “startup mentality”–even in the public sector. Is it really possible to have a “startup” in a huge global enterprise? The answer is “yes,” and I’m actually running one today. Furthermore, the “startup mentality” is absolutely vital if our massive, global operation is going to succeed in the next 50 years. Let me explain.

About two years ago, the Air Force embarked on a massive reorganization. We created a new global Center headquarters to centrally manage all the resources for all 77 Air Force bases around the world. For a military force so tied to their bases–land based air power needs bases to operate–this as an enormously complex undertaking. Culturally, organizationally, and operationally, the reorganization of the Air Force was a big risk. The opportunities to improve how we manage Air Force bases, to save money and ensure we meet the Air Force’s the highest priorities are equally enormous. We have a tremendous opportunity to something truly amazing.

My piece of this global enterprise is located here in Hawaii, and we serve alongside our teammates from several other regional “business units” with the same parent headquarters. Our mission is to be “solutions architects” for our primary customer (Pacific Air Forces), as well as the other Airmen in the Pacific. Our headquarters is in San Antonio, Texas, five times zones and 3,700 miles away. To be sure, we’re not entirely breaking new ground: the other uniformed Services embarked on similar centralization efforts a decade ago. Also, we have the benefit of working within the umbrella of a very large organization–the Air Force.  As an optimist, I see even drastic change as an opportunity to do something amazing. Even well conceived and managed change breeds chaos–it disrupts people from their routines, establishes new communication and resource lines of authority, and forces us to look at delivering products and services in new ways. As painful as it is, disruption is a necessary catalyst for innovation in large organizations, especially in the public sector.

Starting from Scratch is an Opportunity

Rather than seeing change–even tumultuous change–as a reason to give up, we have to look for the opportunities when change happens. Each of us has those moments when we think, “I could do this so much better”, change is our opportunity to bring those ideas to life. In our case, being 3,700 miles from our nascent headquarters and co-located with our primary customer were also benefits because we could implement change on our end and then prove it worked before pitching it to the enterprise. When we had good ideas and shared them with our teammates around the globe we became influencers to the entire Air Force. Because our team was and is agile in turning our ideas into reality, and then sharing those ideas with our off-island teammates, we have the chance to be a big influence on the way our enterprise does business.

Having the Courage to Innovate

Of course, nothing happens without strong leadership supporting a culture of innovation–and that must come within and without. Most importantly, our “C-suite” leadership back in San Antonio allowed us to innovate and share. It is a courageous choice for the CEO of a new global organization to provide broad guidance and give us all freedom to innovate. We are very lucky to have leadership with that courage. Secondly, our teammates around the world had the courage to share ideas with us and each other. Big change breeds stress and the natural human tendency is to retreat to protect what’s left. Not so with our global teammates: they constantly share ideas, proposed solutions, and challenged the status quo. Finally, our own Pacific team had to overcome our own distress at successive “reorgs” and look for opportunities to lead. Our little, but mighty, diverse team of sixty professionals came together to take a proactive stance. This sort of courage and collaboration can be very powerful. The result was people were free to take some risks and look for alternatives to the status quo. That is the heart of innovation: the willingness to try something new and seek a better solution to an old problem. It takes courage to innovate, courage inspired by courageous leaders.

Change is Hard-It’s Harder if You Don’t Innovate

Innovation, then, is led with courage by leaders willing to accept some measure of risk. That leadership can’t operate in a vacuum; all our good ideas would have been meaningless if we’d kept them to ourselves. Furthermore, if we’d have gone beaming off on our own instead of seeking solutions to problems common across the enterprise then our off-island teammates would be justified in writing us off as kooks. But we didn’t. We took good ideas from others, we shared successes and failures, we fought for feedback, and we took risks. Massive change is incredibly difficult, but it’s impossible without courage from leaders at all levels to try something new and take risks. That’s a lesson for any large organization, no matter what you do.


Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world.  He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, People Development Magazine, and GeneralLeadership.com.