The Physics of Momentum and Change

Physics tells us that the initial state of a body will persist, whether it is at rest or in motion. Once force increases past resistance, motion occurs. This is an important concept for us in leadership I think, so let me give you a more concrete example. Imagine yourself standing in the middle a large, expansive, flat field. Next to you is a giant, round, grey, boulder. Of course it’s not perfectly round and it has holes and dents in it. It’s just a big rock. If I asked you to move that rock five feet, it would be a huge task. It’s in a state of rest, and getting it into motion would require massive amounts of energy on your part. But lets say you got it to roll over a few times. You’ve moved about five feet but the boulder has some momentum behind it. You keep pushing and the boulder continues to build momentum. With every heave from you the energy in the motion builds. Now you’ve gone fifteen feet and your turning it over and over. After thirty feet the boulder is almost rolling along, and you find yourself walking behind it now as you push and push. After fifty feet your legs are getting almost exhausted,  but you realize your at a brisk walk. You’re not working as hard now, its just rolling along. There is energy in its own motion, and it wants to keep moving forward even without your movement. It’s momentum is going to carry it forward, at least for a while, even without you pushing it along.

This is so true of change and organizational design isn’t it? Change is tough work and doesn’t happen until our energy outweighs the resistance to change. At the point your energy begins to overcome, you create some motion. But you don’t stop there because the resistance hasn’t stopped. You keep applying force, you keep moving, you keep pushing. As your movement progresses, as you take action after action, your speed increases. Now you are building momentum, and it becomes easier to drive this change forward. Though resistance remains, energy is working with you and momentum begins to carry you forward. This is the physics of making change happen, and this is why momentum is so important to organizational leaders.

Momentum is not just movement and not just speed. Momentum is power residing in an object. That is what’s so great about it: it’s energy. Once you have crated movement and direction, momentum or energy begins to build which can help carry you forward. There is great capacity in creating and capturing momentum. Momentum will carry you. Momentum can become the wind in your sails. It can become the launching force that pushed you over a wall you never thought you get over. It can pull you through a barrier you never thought your could break. We can use our momentum to overcome things that we couldn’t with our own energy. By taking action after action, even small steps, we create an energy and motion bigger than ourselves or that of our team.

With momentum, we attain things we couldn’t by doing everything we can.

Great leaders should look to identify, sustain, and capitalize on momentum to accomplish great things. Here are the tips and tricks to sustaining momentum:

1. Attain momentum by doing little things right. Momentum is about action steps and discipline. It comes by taking one step after another. Methodically moving forward. You must keep taking action.

2. By definition, momentum needs both direction and motion. Direction is key here. To gain momentum as a leader we can’t have divided energy, we must have a unifying and singular direction. If your team is puling and pushing in different directions, you will never have the ability to push change and build momentum together. Imagine that boulder you where pushing. As soon as you try to roll it in a different direction you loose all momentum. Vision and direction are key. Stay the course.

3. Because of this need for singular direction, simplicity and excellence are important. You can’t create valuable momentum with complexity. Though complexity and uncertainty often exist in our environment, leaders need to work at creating simple, clear, and focused direction. Complexity stands in contrast to momentum. Fight for clarity and simplicity.

4. You sustain momentum by removing all the resistance you can. As a leader, be on the look out for a change in course. Keep your direction straight and focused. Be on the look out for mistakes, and remedy them as quickly as possible. These can derail you if they linger or repeat. Action steps fuel momentum, and idle energy slows its progress. Keep your team focused and moving, with concrete action steps always in front.

5. Finally, know momentum is relative to the movement and energy of the things around it. The differential in motion is a key to the amount of momentum, or perceived momentum. This would mean that a “stick in the mud” would be a massive obstacle to getting things moving, but is a sitting duck to great momentum. Those moving with you have the energy, but those with no movement will get steam rolled once you are moving with the wind in you sails. You can stop a large boulder with little motion, but if I’m running behind a boulder with significant momentum you better get out of the way or get on board! When trying to get change moving, you might need to side step the “Stick in the mud” folks if you can. They’ll trip you up a bit at first, but know that once you have the momentum they won’t be able to stop you.

Though momentum is of significant value to change leaders, I’ll end with one word of caution. Momentum will carry you in a singular direction with great force. Just make sure you are heading in the right direction from the start. This is why vision and direction are so critical in the beginning. You don’t want to build a bunch of momentum heading the wrong way! Then you’ve gone from wind in your sails to stopping a freight train. That’s not a fun place to be. Be confident in your course before you begin running hard. Once you’ve got your path, use momentum to carry your efforts further than you thought possible. Momentum is a great leadership tool!

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