Sir Isaac Newton explained the concept of inertia in his first law of motion when he stated that any given object will remain at rest or in uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force. Another definition of inertia is “a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.”
The principle of inertia applies to realms beyond the physical world and even includes organizations and how they behave. Businesses, nonprofits and even communities as a whole exhibit inertia when they do what they’ve always done unless something from the outside forces them to change. Like the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But there’s a difference between consistency and inertia. Consistency is beneficial to organizations as evidenced through ongoing systems, processes and culture. Inertia, on the other hand, is the inability to respond to outside challenges until after the damage is done.
Inertia is most apparent when successful organizations develop an inability to objectively assess outside forces and as a result do not respond to them effectively. A well-known example of organizational inertia is Blockbuster Video. Despite entering the online movie rental business first and beating competitors like Netflix to the punch, Blockbuster failed to commit fully to the online business model and fell into bankruptcy trying to maintain its brick-and-mortar stores. Another former household name, Kodak, invented digital photography but treated it as a novelty category until it was too late and today is just a shell of its former self. These well-known examples show the cost of organizational inertia in the business world.
Communities are also vulnerable to this type of paralyzing inertia especially following a period of sustained growth and success. Good times often produce complacency and unfounded assumptions of continued success. When unexpected threats arise, communities that believe they have it all figured out are most susceptible to losing decades of hard-earned momentum.
Wise communities take honest stock of their competitive situation regularly and are proactive in disrupting their own assumptions and approaches in order to continue succeeding.
After all, as George Will once said, “The future has a way of arriving unannounced.”
– John Moore is a principal with Momenteum Strategies, an Upstate-based consulting firm specializing in helping communities and their economic development organizations build thriving, impactful innovation ecosystems.