Today, doing nothing is going to cost you in the long run. Fight inertia by learning its tell-tale signs and what to do about them
‘The cost of being wrong is less than the cost of doing nothing’ – Seth Godin
Last month I looked at the impact that ignoring cost of doing nothing jobs can have on a business. The type of hunkering down that resulted in the Auckland Airport having its single aircraft fuel line fail, grounding aeroplanes and costing money. But I also acknowledged there were some understandable, if rapidly expiring, reasons for this baked-in resistance to change.
This month I want to look at the forms this corporate inertia can take and some ways you can inoculate yourself against this, and by doing so ensure your organisation’s survival and success in the future.
Let’s start with how doing nothing manifests in an organisation.
Neglecting to optimise
In his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Steven Covey says continuous improvement, ‘sharpening the axe’, is the essential habit that allows you to effectively carry out the other six. He illustrates this with the story of a master woodcutter, who starts to fell fewer and fewer trees. When asked when last he sharpened his axe, he says he doesn’t have time for that, he’s too busy trying to chop down as many trees as he used to be able to. Steven’s book may date back a while now, but many of the messages are still relevant today, especially this one. In fact, this advice has probably grown in relevance and continues to grow week by week.
This lesson applies as much to creating highly effective businesses as it does to people. Too many businesses are needing to run just to stand still. And this perceived ‘busyness’ provides a convenient smokescreen for not taking the time to sharpen the axe by throwing out old, tired and inappropriate processes, activities and technology and replacing them with something more future-ready. Or even challenging existing systems that are currently working and looking for ways to improve them.
Understandably, during tough economic times, finance’s focus shifts to surviving the next quarter, and then the one after that. This is a sound policy, but not when the world is changing so fast that you won’t recognise it in a year’s time, and will be entirely unprepared for what your customers want. In the past one thought of short term as this year, medium term as the next three, and long term as five years and beyond. Today I would suggest this has shortened dramatically: short term is almost tomorrow, the medium term is next quarter, and long term is by year-end. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but not too far from the truth. And for some industries even that is too long!
Business needs to balance being adaptive and responsive when direction needs to be changed with avoiding making short-term decisions that paint them into a corner in the future.
In the 1980s, it might have been the case that nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM, but today playing it safe could result in your company not being around tomorrow. Unfortunately we still run the risk of clinging to this thinking and rewarding play-ing it safe. What’s more, too often we also fall into the trap of questioning cost, but if you can’t afford to do it right you best make sure you have the resources to fix it! And this applies to not doing anything at all, as well.
Lack of the right skills and experience to navigate the digital future
If all you have is a hammer, it stands to reason that all your solutions are going to involve hammering, whether it’s effective or not. This is the challenge businesses face today. They can’t solve new challenges with old skillsets.
Back in the day, succession planning meant having a pipeline of skills in the wings ready to take over when people moved up and eventually out. Today, though, this is not enough, and is yet another form that corporate inertia can take. Without new skillsets, businesses are going to keep using old ways of thinking and problem-solving, resulting in old solutions for new problems.
So, succession planning today is about hiring people that have the skills to adapt, and, crucially, thrive at doing things that automation can’t, while having the ability to work with robots. An example is accountants being freed up from crunching data rather using their abilities to spot patterns, analyse the data and think strategically about how this informs business decisions.
There are other ways that corporate inertia plays out. Look around your company and think about whether things make sense, or are simply done that way because that is how they have always been done.
So how do you go about inoculating yourself and your organisation against falling into the trap of doing nothing, especially at this crucial moment in time in the history of business?
Here are my three top tips:
- Quantify the high cost of maintaining the status quo. Turn quantifying the cost of doing nothing into a habit. It won’t be a perfect calculation, but it should be on the agenda and front of mind during the decision-making process.
- Iterate. Shift away from waterfall thinking where everything is planned, built and delivered sequentially and rather learn from agile software developers and their continuous feedback loop. This takes the pressure away from being sure you are making the right decision at the outset, to making the decision right for you, through constant improvements and vigilance. Or, failing fast and learning from the experience.
- Check your ROI mindset. This is an example that is close to home for us. One of the challenges any new technology or process which changes the status quo needs to surmount has nothing to do with the ability of the solution but, in many cases the need to convince the powers that be that shifting to a better way to do something is worth the initial effort. This resistance to change and inability to calculate the cost of doing nothing today results in a real risk of missing out on long-term ROI. Don’t let your company fall into this trap.
Now, where to from here? What can you do today? Simply decide! Choose a lighthouse project that gives you a toe in the water, then learn and improve. The cost of doing nothing jobs are often also the small steps needed to innovate. Innovation is too often painted as a wide-ranging, paradigm-shifting, big bang event. But it includes the incremental improvements to products, services and processes.
So, this summer, once you have recharged your mind and body, why not take a look at recharging your organisation by fixing metaphorical dripping taps, automating manual tasks, overhauling legacy software that is chugging along, not broken, but not actually fixed either.
Author: Kevin Phillips CA(SA) is CEO of IDU Group