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The Jazz Process: Maintain Momentum

Adrian Cho talks about how you can create and maintain constructive momentum in your organization.
This chapter is from the book
  • “It does not matter how slow you go, so long as you do not stop.”
  • —Confucius

Concepts of Momentum

Any system must expend resources to advance or move in a specific direction. Energy that a baseball pitcher transfers to a ball, fuel that a car consumes, and a team’s united intellectual efforts to solve a problem are all examples of expending resources in pursuit of a goal. When resistant forces such as friction are present, making progress is harder, and additional resources must be expended. The pitcher must exert more energy when throwing into a strong wind. If you add parts to a car’s exterior, such as a roof rack, or if you open one of the car’s windows, the vehicle’s wind resistance increases. If the car’s tires are underinflated, it increases their rolling resistance. Each form of resistance, also known as drag, increases fuel consumption. As we’ve learned, sources of friction in business, such as politics, excessive bureaucracy, lack of trust, poor communication, and frequent mistakes, all require people to spend more time and energy.

Momentum is the tendency or impetus to continue in a specific direction. When momentum is present, fewer resources need be consumed to advance. If you’re driving a car and you take your foot off the throttle, the vehicle’s momentum causes it to continue moving, despite various forms of friction. You must apply the brakes and create substantially more friction to slow the car more quickly. If velocity is a measure of how quickly a team is progressing, constructive momentum makes it easier to continue at a constant velocity—and also makes it easier to increase velocity. Constructive momentum can make it easier to establish positive feedback loops such as economies of scale that build on previous results to produce increasingly greater future results. Destructive momentum, on the other hand, is negative progress. Repeated mistakes or problematic behavior can generate destructive momentum, fueling costly and dangerous negative feedback loops that waste precious time and resources. In our further discussions, references to momentum refer to constructive momentum unless otherwise noted.

In physics, momentum is calculated as the mass of an object multiplied by its velocity. A truck has greater mass than a car, but the car can have equal momentum to a truck if it is moving fast enough. This concept of momentum applies to teams as well. For any given velocity, a larger team or organization has more momentum than a smaller one. In theory, a smaller team can have equivalent momentum to a larger team if its velocity is high enough.

Getting started, or “getting the ball rolling,” to quote an often-used metaphor, can be one of the hardest things to do. Critical mass is a sociodynamic term for a state in which there is sufficient momentum to enable an activity to be self-sustaining. To reach this state, considerable resources may need to be expended, especially if resistance must be overcome. In social situations, this can happen when introducing a new idea, a new practice, or new people. People have resisted change for as long as humans have been able to establish routines that they can take comfort in. Comfort is largely the result of emotional connections that are established over time, and severing such connections can be difficult. In any transition, it’s important to acknowledge both the good and the bad about the things people are familiar with, while helping them connect with what they are being asked to adopt. In Chapter 8, “Act Transparently,” we identified how associations can help establish a perception of authenticity. Similarly, associations can help people establish connections with new ideas, practices, or people. Execution champions, used in large companies, are an example of employing such associations by having people act as advocates for something new. Their clout can often enable them to lubricate situations, easing the inevitable friction that can be generated in the course of a transition.

The single most important element of momentum is regularity. People are naturally drawn to the predictability of regular cycles. The “theater” exercise described in the Introduction is an example of how a group of people instinctively fall into a regular cadence when they read together, just as a church congregation does when reading liturgy. This is a manifestation of a physics concept known as entrainment, wherein two or more interacting oscillating systems fall into the same period. Momentum can be maintained by managing four operational elements that leverage people’s affinity for regular cycles: form, tempo, pulse, and groove. Let’s look at each one in turn.

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