Active Inertia & Active Waiting!

I have been doing some reading on Management Perspectives lately and as a working professional clearly have more or less involved and/or observed such situations. Even though at first glance one may or may not give it a name, but reading through it, understanding it and contemplating over definitely gives a very deep sense of Dejavu! Tim Hindle in his book, Guide to Management Ideas & Gurus writes about “Active Inertia”. It was basically observed by Donald Sull during his 6 year period observation of successful companies in uncertain markets. It is nothing ground breaking. I guess each and every one of us in real life does not follow an active inertia strategy but instead implements something known as “Active Waiting”!

Before I write up on the details, let us define Active Inertia. In Sull’s own words, Active Inertia is the Management’s tendency to respond to the most disruptive changes by accelerating activities that succeeded in the past! Managers by definition see inertia as inaction whereas the fact might be that inaction does not mean nothing is done. Successful companies and individuals respond very effectively to volatile factors. From a company perspective such volatile factors will be unexpected shifts in regulations, technology, competition, macroeconomics, environment, etc. On an individual level, volatile factors can be things affecting life (financial, social, family), job, future, status, etc.

I still remember my first job interview where I was asked, “Where do I want to see myself in 5 years?”. My answer on that interview did not impressed the interviewer! My answer was, “I am not certain on the position that I would be able to achieve in 5 years or the salary figures that I will reach, but I will definitely get a lot more experience in both technical and business aspects and decision making within the organization, which will help me to better support the existing business as well as divulge into many new and exciting business segments”. I guess the interviewer hadn’t heard of either “Active Inertia” or “Active Waiting”.

Which brings us to define the other term “Active Waiting”, which basically means, anticipating and preparing for opportunities and threats that cannot be either fully predicted or controlled. Donald Sull in his “Strategy as  Active Waiting” explains it in more details. But in short and simple words, it means to be READY for uncertainty (opportunity or threat)! It is not that hard to get. When we drive to work in the morning, we are NOT in active inertia mode, we are actually in active waiting mode. If we see a road block or accident, we either take a different road or adjust our driving speed to match the flow. In the worst case, one might decide to turn back and work from home or take the meeting over phone (while still stuck in traffic). All of the situations arise because of volatile factors and we have prepared ourselves to adjust to circumstances beyond our control. One cannot drive down the blocked road at the same speed as in the past!

I have, so many times, seen managers (& developers alike) falling in the Active Inertia trap. We have done this in the past and succeeded, we know how it is done, which implies, if we do it again we will succeed! Read the above sentence again. Does it make sense (logical or otherwise)? NOPE. Such a strategy can only succeed if the company or individual is working in a very regulated environment without any volatile factor influence (which is impossible in today’s business and personal environment). But we still have scores of companies, scores of managers and scores of developers thinking along the same lines. Instead of preparing for uncertainty and taking dynamic decisions, one tends to set a strategy in stone wildly believing the past repeats!

I have many such stories to share from my work experience but that is a topic for some other post. But basically, individuals and corporate should following a strategy of “Active Waiting” and avoid “Active Inertia”. So how do we avoid “Active Inertia”? Very simple really and my management friends will kind of relate to it ;). One needs to articulate a FUZZY Vision which will provide the general direction and sets aspirations BUT will not prematurely lock the company in a specific course of action. A downside of this line of thinking is that the company or individual does not know when the real opportunity or threat is knocking and when the FUZZY vision should evolve into a CLEAR vision and specify a course of action. But in general, if we are prepared for the uncertainty and are dynamic in our thoughts and decisions as well as quite aware of the volatile factors that we are operating under, I don’t see any downside.

An example of an “Active Inertia” is none other than NOKIA. While Nokia back in early 2000s and up to 2007 was pretty much the market leader in phones with a first to in so many different ways like unconventional designs (N-Gage), touch on phones (EPOC, Symbian, Maemo), dual sims, all touch + physical keyboard (N700, N800/810, N900), smart OS phones (Symbian/Maemo), etc., they really do not exist anymore (or atleast after 2011 are a fraction of size and in 2015 are no more). Where did they fail? Why did their empire suddenly came crumbling down? One of the reason besides a million others was “Active Inertia”. I still remember my days meeting the Nokia managers for a Maemo/Meego based device back in 2008, Symbain was already showing signs of succumbing to death but more than half of Nokia was actively involved in keeping the dead zombie alive and the rest 25% actively involved in trying to kill Maemo/Meego. One of the managers was very much confident about surpassing Apple (by that time Apple still was relatively new in the phone business) stating that Apple will not be able to bring the Capacitive touch to masses and all. In short, they kept doing what they did the best and never readied themselves to the changing factors which ultimately lead to its demise. ST-Ericsson is other such example but that story is another post.

Sleep tight my friends. Don’t let yourself fall into “Active Inertia”.