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April 16, 1997

Momentum

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A flywheel can propel you or it can break you.

When you move to implement your strategy, things are going to start happening quickly. Your employees will be busy. Plans will unfold. Like switched-on machinery, your organization will hum with new activity.
It’s easy to get excited at this point. The plan is becoming a reality! Momentum is building!
But this is when you’ve got to contain your enthusiasm and evaluate the nature of the momentum. Because you see, momentum can move in the right direction or it can move in the wrong direction.
In his classic book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the Flywheel Effect and its evil twin, the Doom Loop.15
According to Collins, a company is like a big, heavy flywheel. It takes steady, repetitive pushing in the right direction, over a period of time, to get the rotational momentum you want. But when that big flywheel is spinning freely like a planet in space, it’s a beautiful thing. It throws off tremendous output. Collins describes it in terms of a breakthrough:

With each turn, it moves faster, and then—at some point, you can’t say exactly when—you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favor. It spins faster and faster, with its own weight propelling it. You aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing.16

I like to think of it this way: Success breeds support and commitment, which breeds even greater success, which breeds more support and commitment.… Round and around the flywheel goes. People like to support winners and efforts that win!
Here’s where high-level success over an extended period of time appears. When a company breaks away from the pack with sustained rapid growth, or when a nonprofit gets wide notice for exceptional service to its mission, you know the Flywheel Effect is in place.
But on the other hand, an organization that lurches back and forth, failing to make wise and disciplined contributions to its goals over time, creates another kind of pattern. If you see an organization that is selling off assets to stay alive, or is desperately trying to recover the lost reputation of its brand, you know it’s stuck in a Doom Loop. Collins, again, says:

Disappointing results lead to reaction without understanding, which leads to a new direction—a new leader, a new program—which leads to no momentum, which leads to disappointing results. It’s a steady, downward spiral. Those who have experienced a Doom Loop know how it drains the spirit right out of a company.17

And this is why, early on in your strategy, you’ve got to ask yourself in which direction the momentum of your organization is running. Get good-quality, objective feedback. Then, if the feedback tells a cautionary tale, have the courage to halt your current momentum quickly by pausing, pivoting, or pulling the plug on your strategy.
You must intervene if a Doom Loop is in the making within your organization. But even more importantly, make the creation of positive momentum a meta-goal of your leadership. You’ll know that you’ve succeeded historically as a leader if the flywheel is operating and your organization is spinning with coordinated activity and extraordinary productivity.

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