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We're over-demonizing inertia

When discussing big companies, one argument that frequently comes up is how slowly they move.

Everything needs to be approved, corporate politics translates in countless layers of approval, budgets are allocated on a multi-year basis. A big company is like an ocean liner, they say. It will follow its course, no matter how much you try to steer it.

Physics has a measure for this behaviour: inertia.

Inertia is defined as the tendency of an object at rest to stay at rest, and one in motion to stay in motion. The only thing that can alter this condition is an external force, that also needs to get bigger as the object’s mass increases.

This analogy always carries a pejorative connotation. It’s a polite way to say the company is so weighed down that even an enormous force can only change its course by a little.

I completely subscribe to this theory: there have been plenty of big incumbents being disrupted by a technology change they could have been at the forefront of1.

Too often, though, the other side of the equation is neglected: inertia is also what keeps companies going without the need to put in massive amounts of force. Once they are in motion, if appropriately led 2, they tend to stay in motion. And since this means staying in business, it’s not that bad of a thing.

What does inertia look like? Existing products, markets, distribution channels, technology and people.

I didn’t get this until I started building a company from scratch. By definition, when you’re starting out, you have no mass - so you have no inertia. That’s why you’ll see competitors with products way worse than yours thriving.

Or, to use a different analogy, starting from scratch equals sailing with no wind behind: you can only move forward by rowing. Your competitors have all the wind behind them, and only need to course correct sometimes.

I’m not saying this is all bad news. Complacency is definitely a thing: they are usually late in recognising when the wind is slowing down, and they’d better start rowing. You, on the other hand, only know how to row: once the wind turns in your favour, you’ll have the advantage of double propulsion.

So what’s the takeaway? Inertia, like most things, isn’t good or bad on its own. You need to acknowledge its presence and use it to your advantage.

Just don’t stop rowing before it gets windy.

  1. Look no further than Kodak and the digital photography revolution.
  2. Granted, that’s a big if.

Published Mar 23, 2024

Mechatronics Engineer, machine learning enthusiast, busy building Compiuta.