Inertia: the enemy of momentum

Understanding the causes of inertia, dealing with the resulting ambiguity, and framing uncertainty as learning opportunities.

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A company grew from 40 to 140 people in a year’s time. They had grown considerably on their existing product that a repeatable product/marketing/sales process. As such, they hired people to execute that effectively - the scalers.

To meet growth expectations, they began to hire people with different skills to develop a new product and build a marketing and sales engine from scratch to take over as the existing product plateaued - the explorers.

This cultural dissonance created ambiguity. Was the old product worth it anymore? Was the new one better? If the new one isn’t growing fast enough, is the old one better? What type of customer was more important? How should we be spending our time?

Warring debates between the two factions held up any decision. Indecision and competing priorities resulted in multiple consecutive quarters of disappointingly low growth. Inertia had infiltrated.

If momentum is the goal, then inertia is the enemy.

What causes inertia?

Inertia happens in two ways.

Increased resistance

The first is through increased resistance, where it feels like getting blood out of a stone whilst walking through mud. Try as hard as you might, obstacles eventually block every path.

It’s most likely from the more esoteric thinkers in your team, where ripple-down effects are most dangerous. It’s manifested through politics and infighting, misguided debates, and bike-shedding1. Decisions, large and small, are bogged down with unreasonably metaphorical what-ifs and gotchas.

Increased resistance happens when people lose trust in the direction of travel because it doesn’t generate the results they are experiencing or expecting.

Lack of velocity

The second is a lack of velocity. Velocity, if anyone remembers high school physics, is speed in a specific direction. Often, this infiltrates businesses under the radar, when the guards are down, disguised as busywork. A thousand monkeys bashing on typewriters will look like they’re hard at work. But are they close to writing the entire works of Shakespeare?

When faced with a lack of velocity, the immediate response from managers is to monitor the work, the deliverables, the outputs. This is akin to measuring the speed, in the velocity equation - how fast are we going? But that won’t tell you if your team are moving in the desired direction.

Velocity is lost when people are confused about the direction they should be moving in.

Ultimately, these causes of inertia occur when there is uncertainty, ambiguity, and misalignment.

Ambiguity and inertia

Startups are a lesson in managing ambiguity and the chaos that it can cause. It feels like current advice is to only hire smart people who can deal with uncertainty - but you also need people that can work on discrete, executable tasks too. Can you define the skillsets required, and set both sides up to deliver business value?

Releasing ambiguity on a team is not likely to work, regardless of how smart your people may be. Personal interpretations, assumptions, and misaligned incentives can cause havoc - and prevent teams from rowing in the same direction together. Can you list the logical questions to be answered, create a framework for reviewing new information, and set rational expectations on milestones and success?

Hiding uncertainty from people also doesn’t work; it builds resistance and friction, and creates a false sense of security on both sides. Can you be super transparent on the challenges, educate teams on the impact and ramifications of discoveries, and create low-friction feedback loops?

Your big hairy audacious goal, mission and vision might suit some people in your teams - but others will likely need the peace of mind that comes with short-term clarity. Can you create a definitive but living, breathing understanding of today’s business-as-usual activity, upcoming priorities, and how they ladder up into your longer-term goals?

Most projects that involve an entire organization dealing with ambiguity are run with an aura of importance, ambitious goals, and high expectations. Can you reframe each ambiguous challenge as a hypothesis, with a rational prediction and clear understanding of what success looks like?

Taming inertia

When you take control of the causes of inertia - a lack of direction, uncertainty, and misalignment - you have an opportunity to use every lesson learnt as a battle you’ve won in the war for momentum.

It’s really important to ensure not only is everyone is rowing in the same direction, but everyone is learning the same lessons. That communal knowledge drives increased focus, whilst framing every outcome as a win builds confidence. And focus + confidence = momentum.

1

“A committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively.” - source