Discipline of Momentum Management

Henry Blackaby famously said in his book Experiencing God, “Find out where God is working and join Him in it.” When you discern where the momentum of the Holy Spirit is humming, your job is not to control Him, your job is to not screw it up! But, it’s important to recognize that momentum is a powerful force. And one of the unexpected responsibilities of every leader is to have a handle on where momentum is and is not happening.

We’ve defined momentum as “forward motion fueled by a series of wins.” When there are a few organizational wins in a row, the result is momentum.  And when there is not momentum it is also important to diagnose it and then lead change out of that dry spot. Sometimes you have to press reset. Sometimes you have eliminate some things you’ve always done and it may even feel like going backwards.

Alison Levine told the story of climbing Mt. Everest and the process of acclimatizing to Everest’s thin air. It’s an important process to even have a shot at climbing to the 29,035 foot summit. By the time climbers reach the summit, the air only holds 1/3 oxygen than at sea level. In other words, if you were dropped off by helicopter at the top you’d die, because your lungs wouldn’t have had the chance to acclimate. So what climbers need to do, is a series of climbs and then descents back to base camp. The most difficult is a treacherous 9 hour climb that leaves the climber within view of the summit, only to descend all the way back down to basecamp so that her lungs can rest and acclimate to the reduced oxygen levels. This process is incredibly frustrating, but Levine shares a profound truth. “We tend to think progress is defined by forward motion, but sometimes you have to go backwards to reach your end goal. Even though you’re going backwards you are still making progress. Because it’s strengthening your body to withstand the elevation and without the backward motion you would die.”

There are times when momentum is preceded by budget cuts, staff layoffs, program reductions. What feels like going backward is sometimes necessary to re-establish forward motion.

But, where there is momentum, diagnose it and keep feeding it, like shoveling coal into the fire of a steam engine. In their book SWITCH Chip and Dan Heath introduce the concept of “Bright Spots.” instead of looking at what’s not working and trying to fix it, look at what is working and try to reproduce it.

They tell the story of Jerry Sternin. Who went to Vietnam to study and try to solve the problem of malnutrition. Conventional wisdom indicated the problem was sanitation, clean water, and widespread lack of education about nutrition in the most rural villages. Those are three massive problems to try to solve. But instead of solving these problems, Sternin decided to look for bright spots. Were there children who were bigger and healthier than others even while the same external challenges existed?  He found some and then diagnosed what was working. The bigger children were eating 4 meals a day instead of 2 (using the same amount of food but spreading it out over more meals). They were fed by their parents instead of feeding themselves. The parents mixed in tiny shrimp and crabs with kids’ rice even though these proteins were thought to be adult-only food. And finally their meals included small amounts of sweet-potato greens which were considered a low-class food. Instead of looking for the deficiencies, they looked for momentum and then reproduced it.

Do you know where momentum is happening in your organization? Do you know why? Do you know where momentum is not happening? And why? One of the first practices in helping to understand and manage momentum is to give data a seat at the table. Facts are your friends. You can only respond to what you know. Often data will point to where there is momentum happening.

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