Organizational Flexibility

turtle moving slowly timer

My old weightlifting coach had a lot of stock catchphrases he used in the gym when lecturing us or encouraging our efforts. One of them was, “I always defer to the laws of physics.” That’s one of those understandings that applies to all things. For example, two concepts that are useful to apply to your observations of organizational dynamics are friction and inertia.

Last year, I wrote a previous editorial where I discussed this, titled “Understanding Friction Versus Inertia,” but here’s a quick synopsis to bring you up to speed:

  • Friction is the way in which anything in your processes and procedures is slowing you down.
  • Inertia is the way in which your people are slowing you down.

Many years ago, working for a large global company, I first observed something that then proved to be a constant when I went to work for other large companies. I summed it up as “large companies have two speeds in their gearbox: glacially slow and panic mode.”

Breaking that down, some organizations are extremely slow to implement anything, through some combination of both friction and inertia … UNTIL they have an experience that scares them (whether externally like a disruption to their industry or internally like a major fiasco or financial problem). THAT’S when they start moving quickly and start making decisions rapidly, for better or for worse.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight and experience of partnering with small and medium-sized businesses, I can assure you that “glacier or panic” isn’t exclusive to huge companies.

Just as one example of how those forces work, among the dealers I work with, I can file them into two groups: ones that can execute programs and initiatives I want to run with them, and the ones who struggle to do that. I don’t say that to be judgmental, it’s just down to their processes, procedures and the communications between their team members at every level.

Communication is a key component. Since almost every company operates on a top-down basis, leadership communicates their expectations to the team members responsible for carrying them out, and (ideally) those people communicate back to leadership the results and useful analysis of what’s working and what isn’t. How quickly — or not — you’re able, as a group, to pivot to either capitalize on a new opportunity or address a new threat comes down to boils down to a couple of things: the quality of the information that passes from one level to another and the kind of empowerment team members at every level have.

People are either empowered to take initiative or they’re not. If they’re not, and they know it, there’s a tendency to take refuge in policies and procedures, what I call “rules lawyering” and a tendency to say variations of “that’s not my problem/I don’t get paid for that.”

Those are non-ideal perspectives when your team needs to be flexible and make quick decisions. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have policies, processes and procedures. But it’s also important to have the ability as an organization for team members to analyze and reflect — and identify when one of those things is inhibiting your performance. You need to be able to identify when, as Captain Barbossa said in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “They’re more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”