How to overcome complacency in successful organizations

How to overcome complacency in successful organizations


You would think that successful organizations are easy to change. They are well-adjusted, they have good systems and high-performers. But surprisingly, this is usually not the case. Their challenges are harder to detect and tricky to resolve.

For successful organizations, their previous successes breed inertia for the previous ways of doing things –and inertia is hard to overcome.

Complacency borne from success obstructs change. But there are some tools you can use to better understand that complacency and overcome it.

Finding Inertia

Your first question should be: What is the source of inertia in this organization? Inertia in organizations, like inertia with matter, is Newtonian: it has energy coming from somewhere. If your organization has been thriving, your inertia is likely powered by the complacency bred from success.

The old way of doing things brought success for the group. But all models eventually require change. If you don't embrace it, the trajectory starts looking negative.

The old way of doing things brought success for the group. But all models eventually require change. If you don't embrace it, the trajectory starts looking negative.

An excellent example of this comes from a major inflection point in the history of one of the world’s most successful companies: Intel.

From Andy Grove’s Book – Only the Paranoid Survive:

Andy Grove, one Intel’s founders (and later CEO), described about how they faced this situation early in its history in his book Only the Paranoid Survive.

Intel was founded on using their transistors to make memory. They were great at it, and were successful. Trouble came in the mid-1980s, when competition from Japanese memory makers begin putting pressure on Intel. It was soon clear that Intel, despite all of its successes in memory making, could not continue to compete with those Japanese manufacturers. Loses were mounting and things looked bleak.

Andy Grove and the then Intel President and CEO, Gordon Moore (known also for his theory, Moore’s law) realized they would need to pivot to another product line: microprocessors. After talking it over with Moore, Grove noted how difficult this was, even when they knew it had to be done:

To be completely honest about it, as I started to discuss the possibility of getting out of the memory chip business with some of my associates, I had a hard time getting the words out of my mouth without equivocation. It was just too difficult a thing to say. Intel equaled memories in all of our minds. How could we give up our identity? How could we exist as a company that was not in the memory business?

This was an existential question from Intel, one that would prove to be tremendously successful and necessary in hindsight. The team there realized it, on some level, but it was still incredibly difficult to shed that desire to hold on to their past success.

Disrupt the inertia powered by past successes

The old ways of doing things provide just enough safety to disincentive the scary transition to something new. Change managers have to make that leap less daunting. 

The old ways of doing things provide just enough safety to disincentive the scary transition to something new. Change managers have to make that leap less daunting. 

If complacency is the driver to inertia, how do you neutralize it? It will take some effort to get people to look past their complacency and toward a new goal. They are deservedly proud of what they have accomplished. You don’t want to undermine that pride and ownership. But you do want to contextualize it to what worked before, so you can distinguish it from what must happen now.

Complacency is hard to overcome. In his book Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World, change management godfather John Kotter details the challenge:

"Part of the problem is political and social: people are often loath to take chances without permission from superiors. Part of it is simply related to human nature: people cling to their habits and fear loss of power and stature.

Complacency and insufficient buy-in, a typical product of past success, complicate matters further. With even a little complacency, people don’t believe anything much new is needed and begin to resist change. With insufficient buy-in, they might believe something new is needed, but not the strategic initiatives being launched from the top. Both attitudes stall acceleration."

-John Kotter, Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World (pg. 9)

Honor past success

Honor the past success. If you don’t, people will rally the citizenry against the change. It becomes a personal resistance. Spend time noting the things that have worked, how they were valuable, and how respected their accomplishments are. Give earnest feedback here. Make it clear why those things worked in their environment. And slowly start to explain the new environment you are facing together.

For Intel, they could acknowledge they were the first movers and they led the industry for over a decade. This was their success. But they could also acknowledge that the marketplace was different. Their memory was no longer going to be competitive on cost. They needed something new.

Focus attention on Something New

Focus the attention on something new. Give your team a new target, something to aim for that is different and exciting. Explain the difference. Make the case for why the new target matters. Connect it to the old target, but do so in a way that differentiates the two.

This isn’t sacrifice. This is progress.

Create a Transition Point

Create a transition point. Something that serves as a line between what happened before and what will happen next --like seasons for a show or a sports team. [Note: those seasons for business trends and models are shortening, so getting into that thinking rewards organizations by preparing them for inevitable and accelerating change.] The closure this thinking provides lets people embrace their successes, but the new environment gives them something to be excited for… something that does not have baggage and old habits associated with it.

Intel had to do this. They were forced to close the chapter of the memory making phase, and embrace fully the entrance to their chip-making phase. This meant that they had ended one era and started another. It was noticeable and real.

Not all changes will be that apparent, but when you find the ones that aren’t, you should make them as clear as possible.

Tweak the perspective

Changing the perspective to use the communities comfort with the past as a way to encourage them toward the future is one of the best art forms change managers can master.

Changing the perspective to use the communities comfort with the past as a way to encourage them toward the future is one of the best art forms change managers can master.

Tweak the audience perspective. Do this by creating new challenges and new scorecards. Your team was successful in part due to their drive and competitiveness. Use that asset by giving it a new direction.

Use the team’s past success as a primer to see what they can do next. You don’t need to abandon what they have already accomplished. They can use their skills and approach to embrace and work toward the change.

Give people a personal investment in the new metrics you are creating. Give them ways to score themselves. Measure their progress. Let them set ambitious goals and, where possible, give them the ability to pursue them in their own way. That autonomy goes a long way to inspiring high-performers.

Create a culture of seasons. Like sprints in Agile project management, you can set time barriers where new things will be attempted and people are measured against that one sprint. They don’t need to worry about the upcoming ones.

How you Can Overcome Complacency as a Barrier to Change:

  1. Redirect the feelings of complacency that power organizational inertia. Direct them toward a challenge that will be positive driver to success.               
  2. Don’t challenge the narrative about the past success. End the story as happy one. Create a sequel requiring new challenges to overcome with the promise of new successes being possible.
  3. Invest people in the success by giving them a scorecard they cannot associate with the old ways.
  4. Make storytelling and reframing the connection to the past a part of the process as often as possible
  5. When appropriate, frame the changes as small and incremental. Use the efforts as a means of involving people and exciting them, rather than convincing them.
  6. Create urgency. Make the scorecards matter, then show people those scorecards often to gain attention. After that, explain (if you are) why you are behind on the alignment of the scorecard with the fundamental goal.
  7. Take the outsider view and help the team do the same: This is what Grove did with Moore when they were faced with the tough decision: "I turned back to Gordon and I asked, 'If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?' Gordon answered without hesitation, 'He would get us out of memories.' I stared at him, numb, then said, 'Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?'"
  8. Align the change with core values using messaging. Innovation, growth, continual improvement and investment –all of these may align with a successful culture. Connect to them explicitly when building the change.


The inertia that flows from success does not need to be a barrier. You can use human nature and redirect it toward positive change. The people who achieved that success before having the capacity to succeed again. Those skills and sense of achievement shouldn’t be wasted.

Intel became an undisputed king of processors. They learned to take their previous expertise, embrace something new and scary, and become masters of their new field. In later years, once the dominant chip maker, they learned to be leery of new entrants eating their market share at lower costs, and started creating chips at a lower price point to block out new competition.

Their success from previous work, and their experience proved instrumental in building a barrier that has helped maintain their longevity for decades.

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