Change and inertia

Concept by Steve Wheeler
I have studied change management in large organisations for over 25 years. Indeed, the very first peer reviewed journal article I published, was entitled 'Managing technological change in nurse education'. It appeared in a British Computer Society journal in 1992.

Recently, I was discussing change with teams of academic staff at a large university in the Southern Hemisphere, and as a result of the conversations I developed the model of change which is illustrated here. It synthesises the work of Clayton Christensen and others, and is a simple linear stage model that attempts to identify sequences of events that can lead to transformation of organisations. I propose that this model applies as equally to schools, colleges and universities as it does to large businesses - which I will refer to collectively as organisations.

The first stage, inertia - is the default position many organisations find themselves in when they realise that nothing is changing and as a result they may be at a disadvantage, missing out on key opportunities, or lagging behind their competitors. The realisation of a state of inertia may be just the trigger leaders or managers need to convince themselves that 'something should be done', and for a process of change to be instigated.

The second stage, iteration, is where the organisation attempts to do something new or different to improve the current practices or processes of the organisation. For some this may promote enough changes required to regain competitiveness, but for many this may not create sufficient impetus.

Concept by Steve Wheeler
The third stage, innovation, has many dimensions and can be considered a cyclical process or spiral. Innovation may - or may not - lead to the creation of new markets, opportunities or processes that will alter the trajectory of the organisation significantly. Innovation requires new actions and creative solutions to existing problems if it is to succeed.

The final stage (and I suspect it may not be the final stage) is disruption. This is a word that is liked and loathed in equal measure by everyone with whom I discuss change. It is liked because it signifies a sea change in the way things can be done, so that previous processes or activities are made obsolete. It is disliked, or even feared, because of the connotation of the word - that disruption is something to be avoided because it upsets people, makes them uncomfortable and takes the entire organisation on a journey into the unknown. People like certainty and are more comfortable in familiar contexts than they are in the unknown and unpredictable.

I have included a 'transformation event horizon' in the model. It was borrowed loosely from the work of Prof Kevin Burden (Hull University) which indicates that at a specific juncture in the change process, new processes and actions emerge that make it undesirable to return to the old practices.

Disruptive forms of innovation are desirable in that they can open new doors for organisations, and provides a new impetus for the organisation to develop and grow in unexpected directions. However, there is a caveat. When disruption is sudden and abrupt, it may become too far reaching or uncomfortable as to have deleterious effects on people within the organisation. Too much change, at too rapid a pace could drive the organisation back into inertia, where all the previous good work is undone. Therefore change management needs to be conducted in a sensitive and measured manner. I'll write more on this model when I have had time to think through the implications, and as ever I'm receptive to constructive comments (please use the box below) about this work.

Creative Commons License
Change and inertia by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Simon Ensor said…
Hmm. Hi Steve :-)
Not sure about « no change »
Not sure about diagrammatic linearity and verticality of change.
Steve Wheeler said…
Well, inertia means no movement... But I'm glad you're not sure (twice) because uncertainty leads to inquiry.... ;)
Simon Ensor said…
My understanding is that inertia doesn’t mean no movement but resistance to change in movement...

Uncertainty may lead to resistance towards inquiry :-)
Steve Wheeler said…
I'm using the word inertia to represent 'a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged,' rather than in the physics/science sense of 'resistance', but even in the physics sense, inertia can mean 'a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.'

Uncertainty may lead to resistance, but can also lead to curiosity which is the optimum state in which deeper learning can occur.
Unknown said…
Interesting, you state: People like certainty and are more comfortable in familiar contexts than they are in the unknown and unpredictable.
Personally, I need change to stay interested. Inertia is way less comfortable for me than innovation. Disruption sounds like a zone where steep learning curves can exist. This keeps life interesting.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Unknown. I'm the same, and I get bored when there is routine. There are individuals like us who thrive in challenging environments where things are uncertain. However, the norm in society, especially in workplaces, is to avoid disruption as much as possible. Think for example of the travel industries (timetables) or medicine (routines and schedules).

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