Three Ways Your Nonprofit Can Overcome Inertia

Over the years, I've run across examples of inertia among businesses and organizations that some might explain as a little nutty.   The machine is not exactly humming along and things aren't going quite right.  No one seems to know why, but they're not attempting to learn more, as they dig in and continue doing the same things over and over again, expecting it to get better.

I imagine most folks have heard about Albert Einstein's “Theory of Relativity”.  I suppose, not as many have heard his definition of insanity, "doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.  Einstein was a physicist and so he understood the laws of physics, like Newton's 1st Law of motion.  This law also known as Inertia states that an object either at rest or moving remains that way until some outside force interferes.  So understanding Einstein's background, it makes perfect sense that he would describe insanity as such.

When applied to the business world, there's sort of a yin and yang to Inertia, it can be positive or negative.  If properly leveraged, you’re sailing along and things are going great.  But, if it is not working in your favor, you might find yourself unable to get moving, or worse yet, unable to apply the brakes to escape the inevitable.

The first step in overcoming the brunt of “bad” Inertia is recognizing your situation; understanding that maybe you're on a runaway rollercoaster.   The signs are often difficult to spot.  They may include a subtle decline in revenue or membership, perhaps volunteers are nowhere to be found, your staff may be slowly abandoning ship, or stakeholders just seem unmotivated.  In some cases, all you know is that something is not right, but you can't quite place your finger on the issue.  If any of these signs are nagging at your psyche, here are three things to help you to refocus.

Shared Vision:   Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization”, aptly said:

“If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, ‘it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create’ (1990: 9). Such a vision has the power to be uplifting – and to encourage experimentation and innovation.” He went on to say… “The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.” 

Let’s accept that it's easy to get sidetracked.  So, going back to the source of what you're trying to accomplish is a great way to refocus.  What's your vision of the future; for both your community and your organization?  When everyone is in agreement and focused upon those shiny goal posts in the distance, you can overcome inertia and your tendency to just keep doing the same things over and over again, just because they’re familiar.

Strategy First – Tactics Second:  Tactics are easy to get your hands around; they're tangible, and actionable, with clear borders.  What three things would you do to increase revenue; would you lower price, offer more services, or advertise more?  Adjacently, strategy can be quite amorphous.  Not long ago, I saw a group thread, which asked about best practices in moving from tactical to strategic; I quietly chuckled at all the tactical responses.  As a result, I became curious and “Googled” strategy.  I was surprised to not find an adequate answer to enlighten my curiosity.

So, I return to my bottom line: think in broad, high-level terms.  For instance, in order to grow, should we get bigger, or better?  With the resources available, what can we realistically accomplish in say, the next 18 months?  Then, drill down and start focusing on those things that reinforce your strategy.  Way back in 1954, Peter Drucker outlined Management by Objective (MBO) as a participative goal setting process that creates a hierarchy of actions to drive a particular outcome.  Here's the Hip Tip, don't fall into the trap of the quick fix; it never hurts to step back and assess from 30,000 feet.  

Measurement:  All too often, one of two things happens with your plan.  1) It sits on a shelf and collects dust; 2) It becomes a ball and chain that binds you to a runaway train.  Another principal tenet of MBO to apply is to set up a system to measure actual performance and achievements against your defined objectives.  Did cutting your price in half triple sales, membership, or your service offering?  If it didn't, all you're doing is splitting your revenue in half.  You need to set targets and determine whether what you are doing is making the desired progress.  Putting a measurement system in place can set guidelines for success.  It can also help you identify whether you're in or out of that rut and whether inertia is working for you, or against you.

Remember, change is good and healthy; it's the cornerstone of most successful businesses and organizations. Revisting what you're trying to accomplish and setting goals and objectives to achieve that vision will help you to refocus, and with a little luck, keep things lively, so inertia works in your favor.

Happy Holidays!

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