Crummy Implementation Cripples Companies, Not Inertia

by | Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
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Many business experts will tell you that inertia kills companies. That the biggest barrier to innovation is inertia — paralysis or passive resistance prevents innovation from getting started.


Few companies, if any, suffer from inertia. Executives, managers, and employees rarely are too paralyzed to take any action. They are always doing *SOMETHING* even if only to justify their job. Alas, they are often accelerating the wrong activities and they aren’t doing the right activities well. They spin their wheels like a car stuck in mud.

My family hails from Michigan and South Carolina, a state that boasts its own Mud Run Guide. Here’s what I know: when your car gets stuck in mud, you are almost always better off if you stop digging your wheels into the ground and turn off your engine. To get out of a mudhole, you need to add traction or use a winch.

In 1999, London Business School Professor Donald Sull also questioned the incidence of paralyzing business inertia and coined the alternative term “active inertia.” Sull suggested that active inertia — responding to market shifts by accelerating activities that succeeded in the past rather than ceasing activity altogether — causes business failure.

Sull is partially but not completely correct.

Inertia doesn’t kill companies; there is little to no evidence of companies being too paralyzed to take any action at all. And active inertia is rarely a company’s problem; faced with mounting competitive pressure, most companies get desperate and unleash a flurry of NEW, oft ill-conceived initiatives to try to stop the bleeding. What causes companies to fail nearly every time is crummy (or sloppy) execution.


In my humble opinion, the biggest barrier to innovation is EXECUTIONAL EXCELLENCE.  The world is littered with great ideas, poorly implemented.

Take for instance, Kodak. Contrary to media reports, Kodak didn’t suffer from inertia (“paralysis”) OR active inertia (“relentless pursuit of the tried and true”). The company was never short on new ideas. Kodak developed countless technology innovations over the years including the digital camera in 1975 but they failed to successfully commercialize it. They held $3 billion worth of patents, valued at more than five times the company itself. They suffered from numerous reorganization efforts — CEO after CEO — making it incredibly difficult to implement smart long-term strategy. Their eager and rash M&A and alliance deals — from Scitex to Imation to Verizon and Creo — lacked strategic due diligence and led to integration headaches. Kodak was undeniably IN MOTION, spinning its wheels like a car stuck in mud.


Are you in an innovation rut? Instead of spinning your wheels and digging a deeper hole, get better at business execution. Create sound action plans but remember that execution and making strategy work is more difficult than the task of strategic planning (developing the strategy is never more important than the results). Hold people accountable, involve the right people in decisions, build “change readiness”, practice the 12 C’s of Commercializing Innovation. In other words: figure out a way to add traction or find a winch. It starts with analyzing and improving your internal innovation processes and your go-to-market strategies.

Editor’s Post Script: No intended offense to Dr. Sull. He’d be an excellent thesis adviser were I ever to pursue a PhD.

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