Active Inertia: coping with disruption

Active Inertia: coping with disruption
Photo by Jesus Kiteque

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many established businesses to confront the realities of disruptive change, and it isn’t easy. It requires hard decisions about what to continue doing and what to stop doing. It requires a fundamental rethink of what one has been doing, which is no longer as attractive or remunerative as before. Looking in the mirror is a deeply uncomfortable process, yet without the new insights that come from this fresh perspective, it is hard to do things differently.

One of the most useful concepts we’ve found has been that of ‘active inertia’, the “tendency [of established organizations] to respond to changes by accelerating activities that succeeded in the past.” This concept was coined by Donald Sull, professor of strategy at London Business School and MIT Sloan School of Management. Sull likens active inertia to a car with its back wheels stuck in a rut. Today, most of us drive on tarmac, but anyone who has driven on a dirt road will understand just how difficult it is to get out of a rut. Every human instinct is to rev the engine harder, making the tyres spin faster. All of this energy expended feels very rewarding, because something is happening. Unfortunately, the result is digging oneself in even deeper. 

Sull provided this wonderful metaphor for business, but we believe it applies to all of us. We carry our individual mental map of how the world works, who we should interact with, and how we should respond. We’ve built up our mental maps over a lifetime, because our successes have reinforced our behaviour and our thinking. Our mental model has been based on doing what we’ve always done, just faster, better and more efficiently. 

Until it no longer works. Then what? A deeply rewarding process of opening up oneself to new insights and ways of thinking. This process requires the removal of one’s own personal blinkers that curtail peripheral vision to spot new opportunities and threats. Once this process is underway, the journey begins, the journey described by Sull as ‘The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World’

Further reading:

Sull, D (2009) The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World. HarperCollins Business, New York.