The CIPD Hackathon recently posed  some questions.  What makes organisations adaptable and what are the enemies of adaptability?  When thinking about my response to the questions, two very different situations came to mind.  Situations that included groupthink, inertia and something from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.    Here are those stories.

The cardboard in the corner of the office

I recently moved into a new office.  In the corner stood a filing cabinet, under which there was a piece of torn, scruffy cardboard.  I looked at it for a day or two, wondering why it was there, if it served any purpose.  Eventually, mystified at the potential purpose of the cardboard, I asked someone else in the office the question; why was the filing cabinet stood on top of a bit of an old box?  The person I asked didn’t know, but agreed with me it looked a mess.  So I asked everyone in the office, and no one knew why the cardboard was there.  But they did know it had been there a long time, and they agreed it didn’t look great.  And every day, they walked past the cardboard dozens of times.

So here is my perplexing issue.  Why had no one thrown away the cardboard?  Just wiggled it out from underneath the cabinet and chucked it in the bin?  Because no one felt that they owned the issue.  It was, trumpet sound, ‘someone else’s problem’.  If you’ve read a bit of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll be familiar with the concept.  If not, a SEP is, as described by Ford Prefect, ‘something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem… The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.  If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is.  Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye’. 

We have a tendency to ignore things that we don’t like, can’t understand, or fit into the ‘too hard’ category.  But more importantly, we often ignore things that we don’t think we can do anything about even if we want too.  How important was the cardboard?  Not a lot.  But no one felt that they had the ‘right’ to do anything about it.

Everybody Stand Up

A few months ago I went to a get together of managers (e.g. a leadership conference).  There was an exercise that involved people in groups of about 15 listening to various speakers speed dating style in a large conference room.  There were chairs provided in little groups for those listening to the presentations to sit on.  And then a weird thing happened.  At the first of the presentations, everyone stood up, ignoring the chairs.  And they stood there for a whole hour.  After about 45 whole minutes of standing, one (senior) person sat down.  Within five minutes everyone had sat down.  During the obligatory event feedback happy sheet, people actually complained about the amount of standing they had to do even though there were chairs for them to sit in.  What happened?  They waited for permission.  Waited for someone else to take the lead (and in particular a senior person) and then felt it was okay to do the same.  It reminded me of the smoke filmed room study where people just sat back, even in a potential emergency, waiting for someone else to react.  The more people just do nothing, the more the status quo stays the same.  In a great example of groupthink, everyone at that conference (literally) stood by and without knowing it reached a consensus that no one really liked.

What are the lessons from these stories?  If you want an adaptable organisation then people need to be empowered.  Sometimes you have to tell people that they can, they may, they must.  If you are the leader of the group, in title, informally or otherwise – you have to give the permission.  You have to be the pain in the backside that stands up (or sits down).

Inertia is the title of a great song by The Wonder Stuff, which gave me the name for this blog.  As prompted by @TimScottHR some lyrics are relevant here: don’t try to tell me that your feet are made of lead; two choices, hang back or get ahead. 

Image by @AATImage

2 thoughts on “Inertia

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