Confronting Strategic Inertia in a Top Management Team: Learning from Failure

Gerard P. Hodgkinson, George Wright

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recently there has been a growing interest in the use of scenario-planning techniques and related procedures such as cognitive mapping as a basis for facilitating organizational learning and strategic renewal. The overwhelming impression conveyed within the popular management literature is that the application of these techniques invariably leads to successful outcomes. To the extent that this is not the case, the absence of documented accounts of instances where these techniques have failed may mislead would-be users into embarking on inappropriate courses of action, unaware of their fundamental limitations. In keeping with a number of recent calls to make organizational research and management theory more relevant to the world of practice, we present a reflective account of our own (largely unsuccessful) attempt to apply these potentially powerful methods of intervention in the context of a private sector organization. Drawing on the rich seam of qualitative data gathered over the course of our work with the senior management team of the organization concerned, we explore the reasons why our attempts to utilize these methods did not yield the benefits anticipated. The data are analyzed using Janis and Mann's (1977) Conflict Theory of Decision Making. It is argued that the primary reason why our process intervention failed is that the participants adopted a series of defensive avoidance strategies, amplified by a series of psychodynamic processes initiated by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). We contend that these defensive avoidance strategies served as a means of coping with the unacceptably high levels of decisional stress, which arose as a result of having to confront a variety of alternatives, each with potentially threatening consequences for the long-term well-being of the organization.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)949-977
Number of pages29
JournalOrganization Studies
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2002


  • Cognitive inertia decisional stress
  • Organizational development and change
  • Organizational learning
  • Psychodynamic theory
  • Scenario planning


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