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TransformationMar 01, 2017

Overcoming Organizational Inertia

Christian Buechel

My project teammate told us his favorite anecdote about a mother cooking a ham with her son, which became a running joke and guiding illustration for our team.

It went something like this: When the mother prepared to place the ham in the oven, she cut off the ends before putting it in the pan. When her son saw this, he thought to himself the ham must cook more evenly or the juices must flow out the side to give it a special taste. The son understandably thought his mother had a secret to the art of cooking a ham so he asked why she did it that way. A bit puzzled, the mother replied that she didn’t really know why, but had always done it that way because that’s what her mother did. To learn a little more, she decided to call her mother to ask. Her mother offered a curt response: “Because the pan I had wasn’t big enough for the whole ham.”

What a shame to waste part of a perfectly good ham all because of bad assumptions and the resulting lack of understanding.

The story wittily illustrates how we have a tendency to accept learned behaviors without stopping to question “the why”. Oddly enough, this story has been applicable to me as I am growing in my consulting experience. It’s a corny reminder to appropriately question why things are done a certain way.

my experience

Recently, my team and I successfully completed the requirements gathering and development phase for a large U.S.-based healthcare company. However, as we progressed into the testing and validation phases, we realized our client’s standardized practices required us to comply with heavy documentation guidelines that seemed unnecessary for our particular project. We became concerned the additional burden would delay the launch date and add little value. Rather than criticize the documentation process, we worked to reach a compromise that would both meet their needs and reduce unnecessary work.

  1. Investigate the Underlying Rationale: Our team respectfully asked why certain documentation requirements were in place and discussed the rationale behind them as they applied to our project. This allowed us to collaborate with our client to determine a more efficient way to document the validation process that would still meet their core guidelines. Approaching the issue from a place of understanding, rather than outright acceptance or criticism, allowed us to tackle the problem in a constructive manner.

  2. Propose an Alternative Solution: Next, we used the information we gathered to propose an alternative solution that retained facets of the previous guidelines; while also making minor changes to eliminate time-consuming, and in our view, unnecessary documentation. Compromise proved crucially important to alleviate our timeline concerns while also keeping us from deviating too far from established guidelines. It demonstrated our commitment was not to only follow historical precedence, but to also work to improve the environments where we serve our clients.

the issue of organizational inertia

I am definitely not the first to be frustrated by outdated routines. In fact, the phenomenon has its own name called “organizational inertia,” inspired by physics. The term describes how mature organizations tend to stay on their current trajectory as time passes.

Clark Gilbert of The Academy of Management Journal segmented this term into two categories: resource rigidity, which focuses on the failure to change resource investment patterns, and routine rigidity, which focuses on a failure to change organizational processes. The heavy documentation that threatened our execution timeline is a prime example of routine rigidity.

If organizations are not careful, this phenomenon has the potential to worsen over time. Processes, procedures, and workflows can become entrenched and increasingly difficult to work within as a company’s size and scale increases. As time passes, standardized guidelines may provide consistency; but, as my team saw in our project, they can also hinder project execution.

This personal experience equipped me to more quickly recognize and avoid the trap of blindly relying on historical precedence. Investigating the underlying rationale and proposing alternatives are disciplines I’m going to continue to work on. When I face a questionable process in the future, I’ll be sure to stop and ask myself, “Is this a ham?”