WHEN YOU START a project, getting up and running can be hard.  But, especially when it’s an exciting thing you’re starting, you have energy and enthusiasm.  You push hard, and slowly the wheel begins to turn.   Keep pushing, and the project starts to turn itself, running on its own inertia.  You’ve gained momentum.  It feels good, and you should ride it, but beware: this is also danger time; you still need to push, and you still need to steer.

Motive Power
A train without a locomotive is… not a train.

Never mistake momentum for motive power.

Look at a big free-spinning flywheel and you’d be mistaken for thinking it’s turning on its own, and at constant speed.  The deceleration is slow… so slow that it’s not really noticeable.  But look away for a while and you might be surprised – you turn back to find the wheel is sluggish, and all the effort expended to get it up to speed has been wasted.  You need to start again.

Or, maybe worse, you’ve got up a fabulous head of steam and you’re roaring along… but in the wrong direction.

Autopilot?...  Maybe not.
Autopilot?… Maybe not.

Never trust momentum to autopilot.

The market changed; a competitor entered; demographics shifted; technology advanced… whatever.  You find yourself barking up the wrong tree, to mix metaphors.

That’s the thing with momentum.  It’s great, because it moves on it’s own, but beware; you still need to keep your eye on it, give it a spin and nudge it back into line regularly.  Otherwise, before you know it, the energy dissipates and motion subsides, or, worse, you wheel right off a cliff, crashing and burning in the valley of obsolescence.

Starting over is painful – oft times so daunting that giving up is a more attractive option.

Good leadership knows this.

In the beginning, when you’re building a team and getting a project off the ground, you need to be hands-on – involved; teaching, showing, coaching, delegating, steering… closely monitoring.  You are the main engine.

As things progress you delegate more and are hands-on less.  When your team is really good, (systematized, informed, skilled, engaged, and well-meshed), they’re practically self-sufficient.  You’re now free to create: to refine and evolve the vision, find new direction, grow the scale and scope.  But don’t ignore the need to scaninternally to make sure the wheel is not slowing (or in danger of jamming!); externally to ensure the direction is right.

Do this, and you can intervene early, when it’s still easy; when you can use the momentum to your advantage.  A gentle push keeps the wheel moving, even accelerates it; a light nudge keeps it on target.

Is it too late to turn?
Is it too late to turn?

Even when a big change is needed, if you’ve identified it early, time is on your side.  The bigger the momentum, the more vital planning ahead and acting early becomes.

Poor scanning has allowed momentum to sink many a ship, literally and metaphorically.  Think Titanic.  Or Costa Concordia.  Or Atari.  Or Bear Stearns.

So, maybe it’s time to check… is your organization freewheeling on it’s momentum?  If you’re the organizational leader (or the head of a section, division or department), scanning is one of your fundamental responsibilities.  Do you have scanning systems in place and are you making time to use them?

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Featured Image:  From Helsinki Agency’s excellent campaign for Yarra Trams.

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More to keep you engaged:

On teamwork:  here, here, and especially here.

On delegating effectively: here

On the Essential Responsibilities of Organizational Leaders: here.