Get Past Inertia (Part 3)

In a group, because relationship add complexity, inertia grows exponentially more difficult to overcome. My inertia plus your inertia is more that 1 + 1 = 2, and when we add a half-dozen colleagues or try to take on a company with hundreds or thousands of employees, the task is truly formidable. Even if Kim decides she is ready to be brave and try a new way of organizing the Monday morning meeting, all of a sudden she confronts the realization that her change will affect her staff members. What if they don’t like her new approach to meeting protocol? Will they refuse to cooperate? Stop having lunch with her? Go over her head, complain to her boss, and expose her to a negative performance review? Kim has a problem. How can she try something new without so unnerving her colleagues that they stonewall a potentially good idea before it ever gets off the ground?

So, in addition to the natural preference for staying with a mode of being that has proven itself to be safe, getting past inertia is also difficult because of the emotional reaction of others. You have to show people that change will be beneficial to them; you have to make it both nonthreatening and inspiring. Play is key to overcoming the emotional component of inertia.

You are probably familiar with the saying that you must fight fire with fire. Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute for Play concluded, after years of research, that “play is no less important than oxygen…it’s a powerful force in nature that helps determine the likelihood of the very survival of the human race.” When we realize that the part of our brain that is responsible for our survival (the fight-or-flight response) is the same part of our brain that contains our capacity for play, it puts play in a new, more powerful, and clarifying light.

Play in face lives eye-to-eye with inertia; both are rooted in our brainstem, where you also find the part of the brain responsible for our survival. Play and inertia are in the same weight class, peers in a very exclusive executive suite where core strategic decisions about our present and future are made. But they are having a little war. Inertia, the more conservative of the two, believes that the smart move is to not move at all, to stay with the plan that got us this far safely. Play, the wild child, wants to dream a little dream, take the afternoon off, find Atlantis and create a new society there, because sitting here is, quite frankly, killing its buzz.

Play—our wildly creative and childlike nature—opens the emotional door. It offers an arena in which people become naturally more flexible. For example, think about music. You go to a rock or jazz concert and when the music starts you may sit or stand quietly, taking it in, being polite, and heaving appropriately. But over the course of the evening the music takes you over and you become more comfortable, then relaxes; you may start tapping your foot or swaying in time with the beat, or even dancing spontaneously with the stranger next to you. You behavior just changed without any effort on your part. This is the magic of play. Knowing that play is rooted in the same brain area as our instinct for survival is a good enough reason to give it the benefit of the doubt.

One you let the genie out of the bottle, once play is in full swing and inertia banished (at least at that particular moment), things ca move fast This is especially true with a large group, because just as it is harder to move a group out of its inertia, once the groups does get moving, it can be force to be reckoned with—in the best possible way. Then the challenge transforms into how to manage your newly creative, very energized team. How to channel their creativity into the winning innovations your company seeks without putting a damper on their enthusiasm. Playful energy will beget as many dead end and failures as it will successes. You have to be able to tolerate this, and you have to create an atmosphere in which your team will be able to tolerate it—even better, embrace it.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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