Back in the day when I worked on Wall Street, "momentum" was an often-used term. People would say “that stock has momentum,” or “the stock market is losing momentum.” To more rigorously explain these feelings, financial experts rely on things like rate of change for the price of a stock to measure its momentum, or the number of stocks moving up minus the number of stocks moving lower (advance-decline ratio) to explain stock market momentum.
Momentum is used in many other dimensions of society. It is used in sports to describe a change in the energy in the game. It is used in politics to describe the power of a movement or policy agenda. It is used in almost every facet of life, including business startups, such as, “that startup really has some momentum.”
I believe that most people have an intuitive understanding of what momentum is and why it is important. This article hopes to share different perspectives people have about momentum, why momentum building requires a team and why momentum takes a long time to build.
Leadership expert and author Jim Collins has used what he calls the flywheel effect to help explain why momentum plays such a critical role in business, why many leaders and businesses fail because of their inability to sustain momentum and how difficult it is for us to generate momentum. Collins explains in his book, Good to Great:
Picture a huge, heavy flywheel—a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible. Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns ... four ... five ... six ... the flywheel builds up speed ... seven ... eight ... you keep pushing ... nine ... ten ... it builds momentum ... eleven ... twelve ... moving faster with each turn … twenty … thirty … fifty … a hundred. Then, at some point—breakthrough! The momentum of the thing kicks in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn ... whoosh! ... its own heavy weight working for you. You're pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum. Now suppose someone came along and asked, "What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast?" You wouldn't be able to answer; it’s just a nonsensical question. Was it the first push? The second? The fifth? The hundredth? No! It was all of them added together in an overall accumulation of effort applied in a consistent direction. Some pushes may have been bigger than others, but any single heave—no matter how large—reflects a small fraction of the entire cumulative effect upon the flywheel.
One thing that Collins does not address in this example is to imagine if, after pushing the flywheel two inches, a curious bystander walks over and asks what you are working on so diligently. You explain what you are trying to do, and why you are working on this task. The bystander seems intrigued, likes what you were doing and asks if s/he can stand next to you and push alongside you.
Would having a second team member, a devout follower, allow you to gain momentum sooner? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding YES.
As this video demonstrates, it is the first follower that transforms the lone nut into a perceived leader by validating and adding credibility to the otherwise crazy person pushing a flywheel. It then becomes easier for others to join in, and collectively momentum can be achieved faster through group effort.
A colleague of mine at USF, Stavros Michailidis, points out how difficult momentum building can be in his TEDx talk titled Building Momentum for Great Ideas.
Michailidis points us toward the field of physics (which I know little about) to help explain how momentum intersects with ideas. Because momentum is so misunderstood and subjective in nature, the physics momentum equation offers a good starting point for explaining momentum in a more objective light, one that startup entrepreneurs can understand.
Physics informs us that momentum is comprised of the mass of an object, its velocity (speed at which the object is traveling) and its direction (results). Momentum is calculated in physics terms as being the sum of the mass of an object times its velocity.
To equate ideas to mass, Michailidis and some science colleagues of his measured the mass of an idea by looking at the resources allocated to an idea. The more resources allocated, the larger the mass of the idea.
Michailidis took these three factors:
resources invested in an idea (mass);
speed (the pace at which things are moving along with the idea); and,
direction (the result yielded from combining resources with speed).
He created a table like the one below to help us understand how momentum is created through the interaction of these inputs.
There is a considerable quantity of information to be extracted from explanations for momentum presented above.
On the one hand, there is the critical notion of persistence, belief, effort, teamwork, patience and collaboration fueling momentum. On the other hand, we can be more conscious of the inputs we all possess, or lack, to realize what the missing piece might be to building momentum with our ideas.
Momentum is generally thought of in a positive light. Most business people are drawn toward momentum, not away from it. People like to be part of something that is gaining momentum. In other instances people will try to avoid momentum, like a momentum-rich baseball pitch traveling 96 miles an hour toward your body, not your baseball bat. Because of the different ways that we engage with momentum, momentum can be a precarious thing to understand, and, if not thought about in a more critical way, momentum in business can be highly disruptive in a bad way.
It turns out that momentum in real life, as it relates to ideas, is not subject to the same scientific factors as physics principles.
Science teaches us about the law of inertia, that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. This law of physics can be directly related to ideas in the startup world. If you have an idea (object) yet you never act on your idea (inertia), no momentum is created. As creative innovation expert Sir Ken Robinson believes, creativity is a form of applied imagination. Imagination alone is good, but never acting upon it leads us nowhere and certainly does not create momentum.
An idea in motion (the object), however, stays in motion with the same speed and direction until acted upon by an unbalanced force (i.e. lack of financing, unforeseen economic conditions, competition etc.). In fact, these are the typical excuses advanced by entrepreneurs to explain a business failure.
In my view, those unbalanced forces (lack of resources) that can disrupt a startup business idea and its momentum are not the primary cause of business failure.
Business failure is rarely about a lack of resources,
but rather a lack of resourcefulness.
Just tell an object in motion, like water, that it must stop when it hits a barrier.
If you a substitute an object, like water, for an innovative, experienced entrepreneur and her idea, she knows that a metaphorical wall is a temporary unbalanced force that can slow down, disrupt, or even stop the idea’s momentum, only when the idea has limited resources allocated to the idea, only when it has limited mass. Even in those instances, an experienced and purpose driven, innovative entrepreneur will not be stopped by limited resources. Rather, she will iterate, shift gears and secure additional resources to find an alternate path around the unbalanced force.
However, if the mass of the idea is large enough, traveling at a fast pace with a meaningful sense of purpose, it will overwhelm the unbalanced force(s) and reach that desirable moment of a tipping point. The tipping point is the point at which the idea cannot be stopped, the point at which the flywheel has so much momentum it is able to spin on its own.
For someone to reach this point requires a combination and spirit of Innovation, Momentum, Persistence, Adaptability, Creativity, Time, and Team: IMPACT(T). The Team in IMPACT(T) is most critical. No team - or the wrong team - makes for a frustrating and lengthy journey that lacks momentum and is unable to gain enough traction to achieve momentum. You may want to reconsidering acting on a idea if you are unable to cultivate IMPACT(T).
Develop your IMPACT(T) first, however, and you will become an unstoppable force.