Are You Suffering from Institutional Inertia?
Why is culture change such a big issue when dealing with sustainability?
After all, personal change can be quite easy. Some people claim it takes just 30 days for an individual to form a new habit (see this interesting TED talk). So why not simply run a 30 day programme to beat sustainable behaviour into your colleagues?
Because it’s not that simple.
Amory Lovins says that, whereas animals like ants have communities which exhibit intelligence way beyond that of the sum of the individuals, the more humans you group together, the more stupid the combined behaviour (or words to that effect). As an optimist, I like to think of this phenomenon as “institutional inertia” rather than group stupidity. The definition of institutional inertia is:
The more people you get together, the harder it is to effect change.
You can see this if you go on holiday with a group of friends and try to decide which restaurant to eat at one evening. The length of time it takes to make the decision and act increases exponentially with the number of people involved. If you are a couple, you’ll probably be onto your coffee before a group of eight have finally chosen an eatery.
When you scale this up to the organisational level a huge number of factors kick in: internal politics, factionalism, fear of failure, fear to speak up, fear of standing out, the desire to belong, tradition (aka “the way it’s done round here”), formal and informal hierarchies etc, etc – they all add up to considerable inertia.
The challenge of overcoming this inertia – “turning the supertanker around” – is immense. In my experience, the most important factors are strong, consistent leadership and a somewhat counter-intuitive combination of bone headed determination and nimble culture change techniques. I can teach you the latter, but the others have to come from within.