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Organisational Inertia – A Predictor for Successful Agile Transformations? (Part 1)

31 Oct, 2013

Organisational Gravity is well-known from the book ‘Succeeding with Agile’ by Mike Cohn and described therein as ‘the forces that pull an organisation back into old habits’ [Coh09].
When an organization makes a transition towards an Agile Organisation and the necessary changes happen at a too slow rate eventually Organisational Gravity will pull the organisation back into where it was before the transition attempt. The well-known property, see e.g. avoid organizational inertia dare to change, of an organisation that is associated with how fast the organisation can change on change-triggering events is known as Organisational Inertia. If it is too high it takes a lot of energy to make changes happen and the Organisational Gravity may make it impossible to complete the organisational transition.
Can we use Organisational Inertia as a predictor for how long it will take (on average) for the Agile transition to complete?
Other questions that come to mind are: What is ‘Organisational Inertia’? How do we measure it? What does it tell us? How does it help? Can we change it? And how?
This blog will address the first question: ‘What is it?’.
In next blogs I will focus on how Agile teams affect the organisation’s inertia and how to measure it.

Organisational Inertia and Escape Velocity

A rocket on the earth’s surface can only escape the earth’s gravitational field when it reaches its escape velocity, which is approximately 11.2 kilometers per second (roughly Mach 34).
Any acceleration larger than zero helps the rocket achieve this (of course before the rocket runs out of fuel). A small acceleration means it takes a long time while a large acceleration means it will escape faster. A too small acceleration will cause the rocket to run out of fuel and pulled back to earth by the gravitational force.
So too with organisations. The larger the Organisational Inertia the longer it takes to effectuate changes. If this takes too long then eventually no one will believe anymore and the organisation looses trust and faith in the transition and Organisational Gravity wins [Coh09].

Analog with Physics

Up till know I discussed Organisational Inertia qualitatively. In order to say anything quantitatively a definition is needed. An analogy with physics might help. In physics masses have two very much related properties: weight and inertia. Its weight, i.e. gravitational mass, determines the force with which gravity pulls at it. Its inertial mass determines its acceleration, i.e. the rate at which its speed (velocity) changes, when a force is applied.
Following this reasoning Organisational Inertia determines the change in the rate at which changes happen in the organisation when it is forced to change.

Definition of Organisational Inertia

Several definitions of Organisational Inertia exist in the literature, see organizational inertia [Gil05] and [Lar96]. In this blog I follow the analogy with physics and define it as:

 DEFINITION Organisational Inertia is an organisation’s capability (or inability) to change after applying a force to it. Specifically, I define it as the ratio of the force applied and the change in the rate of changes that the organisational is capable of effectuating (acceleration) in reaction to the applied force.

This doesn’t really help or does it? We just shifted the problem of defining Organisational Inertia to defining ‘some applied force’ and ‘change in the rate of changes’. What I achieved by this definition is that the abstract term Organisational Inertia is expressed in two other variables (‘force’ and ‘change in the rate of changes’) that are easier to give meaning to in the context of agile teams.
As in physics, the larger the Organisational Inertia is, i.e. the slower the organisation is capable of altering the rate of applying changes when the same amount of force is applied, the more difficult it is to reach the escape velocity and become unattached to the current situation before Organisational Gravity kicks in.

Summary

Organisational Inertia is supplementary to the concept of Organisational Gravity and an indicator for how well the team’s environment is facilitating the team’s growth. It indicates how fast (or slow) the organisation can react to change-triggering forces. Large values indicate a long Agile transformation while small values indicate potential fast transformations.
I gave a definition in terms of two other entities: ‘some applied force’ and ‘change in the rate of changes’.
In next blogs I will define how to define these two variables in the context of Agile teams and organisations and provide a simple set of metrics for it.

References

 [Coh09] Succeeding with Agile, Mike Cohn, 2009, Pearson Education, [Gil05] Unbundling the Structure of Inertia: Resource Versus Routine Rigidity, Gilbert, 2005, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 48, No. 5, 741-743, [Lar96] The Dynamics of Organisational Inertia, Survival and Change, Erik R. Larsen, Alessandro Lomi, 1996, System Dynamics conference,
Questions?