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October 7, 2005 [ More archived home pages here ]

Impressions Of Organizational Inertia

For several decades now I have observed many people I know in my life as individuals and as members of organizational groups. I have some comments to make in general about that and as such, may not be applicable to your experiences.

Every person in my study, including myself, goes through a constant period of elation, steady-state, and withdrawal throughout life. It is a natural way to live. Not every day is the best, not everyday is the worst, most days are what we would likely call, "normal". Some people may ascribe one person's "normal" as not being so. In any case, we humans flow in cycles and forms the process we call life.

What I want to write about today is that when people join together in organizations, the cycles of each person interact in complex ways with each other person. The organizational goals are interpreted in various ways depending on what phase of the cycle the participants are in presently.

I find that every organization I have belonged to whether business or volunteer, generally follows a similar process as the person cycles. Initially there is great elation as a person enters into the process. After the excitement wanes, the steady-state takes over for a certain length of time. Sometimes the stead-state leads to subsequent rounds of elation, sometimes it is followed by withdrawal of enthusiasm. The cycle then reverses or starts over again.

A person involved in an organization may form an opinion of the organization based upon their own personal phase of life's cycle or subjectively as they observe the organization from a fixed perspective of a particular point in time and render a judgement as to the organization's current status. On any other day they could render a different assessment. On any particular day, another member could render an entirely different assessment from one another.

So what is the true status of an organization? I think that's almost an impossible determination to be made in most cases. I think if we try to personify an organization in an attempt to make a "true" assessment, we fail. Instead, it is my humble opinion that an organization is not a whole entity that can be represented as anything more than an association of its many parts or members. There is no oneness to express or consider.

If organizations, especially volunteer organizations were observed from a process of ebb-and-flow where nothing is constant, the members would likely be more at peace with themselves. Their own expectations would be more in-tune with their commitment to such organization.

I believe that members who think they have a plan to "improve" an organization should step forward and place their hat in the ring. They should set down their plan in writing and distribute it to the other members for review and in an attempt to form consensus going forward. Sometimes people only do this if they perceive that an organization's inertia is withdrawing from its stated purpose, from their point of view.

Leaders will step forward when they feel they can have an impact. Some people only want to lead when the inertia seems to be going positive. Those that fall in that group may not be tested and therefore will miss out on opportunities brought on by challenges. Some people want to lead during a steady-state condition because they wish to continue the steady-state or perhaps they want to move the organization upward once more. Then there are the people who step up to the plate when they feel the organization is slipping, in need of strong leaders and challenges to move the organization into the "elation phase" again.

It is important in my view to understand that the three phases for an organization are always in existence at the same time. There is no "oneness" as I already said above. Therefore every organization is in need of leaders constantly. There are always opportunities to lead for each member. No shortage exists.

I'll end with one of the quotes from Alan Kay, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." I believe every leader knows that principle intuitively.

Don


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