Momentum is like a booster rocket. Ignition makes the path forward clearer and obstacles easier to overcome. When a team has momentum, they are “in the zone”. Things just seem to flow.
Maxwell explains Momentum using an analogy of a train:
A train traveling 55 mph on a railroad track can crash through a 5-foot thick steel-reinforced concrete wall without stopping. That same train, starting from a stationary position, won’t be able to go through an inch-thick block in front of the driving wheel.
It is never the size of your problem that is the problem. It’s a lack of momentum. Without momentum, even a tiny obstacle can prevent you from moving forward. With momentum, you’ll navigate through problems and barely even notice them.
As a leader, your responsibility is to understand momentum, to get it moving for your organization, and to sustain it over time.
John C. Maxwell
When I first learned about Momentum it helped me think about the leadership role in a new way. I realized then that I could come to work every day and focus on problems. On good days I would assist the team to solve those problems. I would feel good because I would see an immediate impact. But ultimately the impact I would have is small, fleeting, and doesn’t scale. Problem solving is important, but the ultimate problem solver is a team with Momentum.
Problem solving only scales if it is the responsibility of the team. A leader’s job is to enable the team by setting the right conditions.
In this article I want to briefly outline the three measures of Momentum; with the proper mixture of capabilities, alignment, and energy you have the conditions for a team to achieve Momentum.
3 Measures of Momentum
Momentum is a physics term; it quantifies the product of mass and velocity. Velocity is a vector quantity, possessing a direction as well as a magnitude.
In business, momentum translates to capabilities, alignment, and energy. Mass is to your company’s Capabilities. Velocity is a function of Alignment (direction) and Energy (magnitude)
The greater the momentum the greater a team’s ability to solve problems and achieve business outcomes.
Capabilities is perhaps the first measure of Momentum that a leader should evaluate. Capabilities are the key resources of a team. They are like the components that make up the train (or whatever). They represent the potential vehicles the team can put into motion (i.e. if your team is made up of metaphorical jet engines and wings you have a very different situation than if you are starting with wheels and tracks).
Capabilities can include things like:
- Human resources
- Physical assets such as facilities, machines and systems
- Intellectual resources such as brands, proprietary knowledge, and partnerships
- Financial resources such as cash and credit lines
In knowledge work, the most important resource is Human. Knowledge work relies on the continuous daily problem solving of experts. A leader should look closely at the team’s individual and group capabilities:
- Knowledge areas
- Hard Skills
- Soft Skills
Individual and group capabilities can be layered over the types of challenges that the team may face to help identify areas of strength and weakness.
The second measure of Momentum is alignment, literally the “arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative positions.” Alignment is the most difficult and time consuming aspect of creating the conditions for Momentum.
A company has alignment when all of the elements of the organization are arranged in a way to support the fulfillment of its purpose. In “Execution is a People Problem, Not a Strategy Problem” Peter Bregman puts it in these graphical terms:
If I were to depict the challenge graphically, it would be going from this:
If a team has the capabilities and resources to solve problems, then the challenge for the leader is ensuring that the whole organization is focused on solving the right problems.
This is a difficult challenge and one that requires constant attention and deliberate disciplined action to achieve. If you’re interested in learning about alignment, the best resource I’ve found is Stephan Bungay’s “The Art of Action”. Also, I posted an slideshare on the subject “5 Keys to Leading with Intent“.
The last measure of Momentum is energy.
A leader seeking to create energy should look for opportunties to share the stage and elevate others. Create (infrequent) dramatic moments to recognize the values and behavior that reflects proper alignment.
Just like in sports, small wins are often the spark Momentum. It is at that moment that the team recognizes they have the capacity and alignment necessary to succeed. Small wins can be a catalyst to greater success. That is why it is so important to celebrate our wins.
Just like in sports though momentum can be disrupted by interruptions, changes in direction, or changes in chemistry. A team with momentum is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. The team is completely absorbed in the work. Disruptions break the flow and sap energy.
When teams with the right mix of capabilities and alignment create Momentum, the next challenge is to get out of the way. Micro-management and criticism, even if well intentioned, can be like a wet-blanket. It sucks up energy and stifles Momentum.
The more leaders focus on problems, the more they will focus on gathering more detailed information, providing more detailed instruction, and enforcing tighter controls. The impulse to make decisions for their teams is understandable and alluring. People in leadership positions often arrive there because they had success as tactical and technical experts. Therefore they are often better at performing some duties than the subordinates whose actual job that is.
Moreover, when a leader takes action to correct a tactical or technical issue they will see immediate results. This then appears to affirm that behavior and causes them to do more of it. However, that reaction is counter-productive:
a leader who believes that he can make a positive difference through continual personal interventions is usually deluding himself. He thereby takes over things other people are supposed to be doing, effectively dispensing with their efforts, and multiplies his own tasks to such an extent that he can no longer carry them all out.
Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions, and Results
These leaders trap themselves in endless firefighting duty because they are focused on solving a the never-ending stream of problems; they aren’t building the capabilities, alignment, or energy necessary for the team to solve it themselves. Instead they are putting distance between the person doing the work and the results. This can lead to apathy because the leader is telling employees “I don’t trust your work or your judgment”. (see Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay, “Micromanage at your peril”)
Even when a leader starts out determined to avoid micro-management, if she hasn’t understood an alternative the result can be paralysis, anxiety, and resentment. Lacking a coherent leadership framework, it is easy to become internally conflicted. If we believe that micro-management does not lead to achieving results, but have not replaced it with some other approach for driving results, we can have difficulty diagnosing the problem. When we fail to achieve intended results pressure builds. Leaders in situation usually succumb to the behavior of command and control or become convinced of their team’s inadequacy.
Let me be clear, sometimes the team is the problem. Sometimes a team doesn’t have the capabilities necessary to do the job, and can’t be trained up to fill the need. But this is rarely the main problem inhibiting an organization’s long-term success. (see Patrick Lencioni, “The Advantage”)
Leaders perform a very important role in the organization, but it is not to be the decision-maker-in-cheif. It is not to be a cheerleader or bystander. It is – above all – to create the conditions for Momentum.