Yes, We Have No Bananas… Adventures in Procedural Inertia

Adventures in Procedural Inertia

Business policies often seem carved in stone… and some of the most deeply carved policies have been around so long, no one actually remembers who created them, or can recall the policy’s original intention. These policies sometimes inhibit not just positive employee behavior, but more critically, innovation and creativity. In a state called procedural inertia, too many ingrained but no longer valuable policies and practices can slow your ad agency or marketing firm to a crawl.

How Procedural Inertia Happens

Have you heard about the study illustrating how procedure becomes ingrained, while detached from any reason for being? 

Imagine a cage with a set of stairs in the middle leading to a banana dangling high above on a string. Enter five monkeys. Every time an individual monkey tries to climb the stairs to grab the banana, researchers spray the other monkeys with cold water. Within a very short time, no monkey can touch the stairs without the others violently opposing the action.

Next, researchers replace one monkey with an outsider. The newcomer is surprised and horrified to be attacked by all the other monkeys when it tries to reach the banana. After twice being violently attacked, the new monkey gives up its quest for the banana.

The researchers replace another of the original monkeys with a new monkey. Again, the newcomer is attacked when it approaches the stairs. Joining the attack is the previous newcomer, who enthusiastically takes part in the punishment. 

One by one, all the original monkeys are replaced, until none has ever been sprayed with cold water. Yet, no monkey will approach the stairs to reach the banana. As far as they know, this is just “the way we do things around here.”

When Policy Becomes Bureaucracy

Procedural inertia happens when we end up bureaucratically following the established way of doing things, without considering whether there is any real benefit from that procedural requirement. Build a big enough bureaucracy, and you’ll end up pushing paper and executing steps you don’t need, putting all the focus on the process itself instead of on outcomes and results.

Kanan Ramasawmy and William Youngdahl, management consultants, told Strategy+Business about a client who “de-Dilberted” their internal policies, to eliminate unnecessary procedures, simplify those that proved useful, and establish measurement for ongoing usefulness.

“During the process, leaders realized that the origins of many policies could not be traced. Other policies had no mechanisms in place for ensuring compliance and no consequences for being out of compliance.” Yet, employees were required to adhere to the policies.

How do you prevent procedural inertia from slowing your agency to a crawl?

Regularly review practices and procedures. Determine whether they are valid and useful, or merely habitual behaviors that should be abandoned. Friction points in processes indicate practices you may want to examine.

Avoiding change is not an acceptable reason to maintain the status quo. It is no better than having a client say he dislikes a creative concept, while failing to offer a valid reason why. Ask resisters to describe the policy’s benefits; if they can’t offer anything more convincing than “this is how we’ve always done it,” ask them to try a different way, just to test whether it offers new or better benefits. Sometimes, their inability to explain what makes a practice valuable is enough to convince them to try a different process.

What if a majority of people push to keep a practice? If employees collectively offer legitimate arguments for keeping a practice or policy, do a trial elimination to test whether the practice is merely embedded, rather than actually valuable. Explain why you want the test, and track how things go. Share the data. If the process is valuable, can it be made simpler, or done in a more efficient way? Involve employees in making the final call.

At least annually, review processes and ask employees where they see opportunities to streamline and improve procedures. Bigger organizations tend to be more likely to develop ingrained behaviors, slowing down processes and creating friction points. However, smaller firms are not immune. As you become more efficient, ask employees to suggest areas where steps, processes or policies might be changed to improve efficiency throughout the year, not just at the annual meeting. This continuous, incremental improvement helps your organization to keep moving forward, achieving efficiencies by reducing process and procedure to just enough to do the job well. 

Instead of accepting things as “just the way it works,” your team can make process work for your agency. Go bananas. 

See also: Less Process, More Speed: Agencies Seek Efficiency Through Object-based Workflow

How Much Process Is Enough? Workflow Management in a Modern Agency

A Well-Oiled Machine: Using Agency Culture to Improve Workflow


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