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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Inertia can be good or bad for a business, December 9, 2007, 2D.

One of my favorite things about taking science classes was when the teacher conducted experiments during class.  It was always intriguing to try to figure out the purpose of the equipment and a challenge to predict the outcome before the experiment was conducted.  For one experiment, the teacher appeared in class with a four-foot length of rope and a bicycle wheel.  The wheel had an unusually long, rubber-covered axle that extended out about five inches on each side of the wheel.

For the experiment, the teacher held onto the two ends of the axle and spun the wheel on the floor and then held it up for the class to see.  The wheel spun so fast that the spokes on the wheel were nearly invisible.  While it was still spinning, the teacher rested one side of the axle on a table and quickly looped the rope under the axle on that side.  He then lifted up the still-spinning wheel by the rope and his other supporting hand.  He quickly asked the class what would happen to the wheel if he removed his hand—allowing the wheel to be supported on only one side by the rope.   In the minds of most, they probably pictured the unbalanced wheel falling to the floor and rolling across the room.  When the teacher removed his hand, the wheel tilted slightly to the side where his hand had been and then found balance on the rope.  The spinning wheel remained upright even though it was being supported on only one side of the axle. 

The result of the experiment was explained using Newton’s first law of motion; which states that, “An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”  The spinning wheel remained moving in the same direction and resisted falling from the rope.  The wheel’s inertia kept it upright on the rope until friction slowed it down enough to become unbalanced and fall from the rope.

Metaphorically speaking, organizations also have inertia and are subject to the same laws of behavior as moving objects.  The expressions, “let’s get the ball rolling” and “let’s keep the ball rolling” refer to starting and sustaining collective work.  Inertia within organizations comes from goals, organizational polices, roles, structure, processes, cycles of events, technology, and patterns of behavior.  As learned from Newton’s first law, inertia is typically harder to establish than to maintain and it shows us that changing organizations can also be difficult. 

Organizations are, by their natures, resistant to change and require “unbalancing” forces to steer them in new directions.  Those forces might be crises or emergencies, actions of charismatic and visionary leaders, organizational cultures, or needs for new strategies and methods of competition.  For managers and organizational leaders who believe that “the only thing constant is change,” the concepts of organizational inertia should be something they understand and appreciate.  

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved