In my experience, momentum has been the single biggest reason a project flops or flies. All the most successful and effective leaders I’ve met have this uncanny ability to create momentum within their teams and organizations. You might not be surprised to learn I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek, since the guy always talks about leaders and motivation and why people do things.
Not rocket science, but don’t try to fly without it
It’s pretty basic if you think about it. Momentum is simply the rate at which you accomplish your goals. Not all goals are created equal, and it’s not just coming up with the goals. It’s getting buy-in and ownership from the individuals that will be executing the goals – that’s the soul of momentum.
Your ability to clearly communicate why something is important is critical to success. The “why” is the foundation of momentum. Why are we here? Why are we waking up every day and working together on this project? What’s the point? This “why” is much easier to understand and own when it’s broken down into more digestible pieces. I’ll explain exactly how to do this later.
When I create a new team or join an existing team, the initial momentum may be zero or even negative. Typically, when I come in, there’s not a large forward impetus that I’m joining into. Instead there’s a situation or a problem with a distinct lack of energy. If an organization or situation already has inertia, I need to get up to speed and provide value quickly. In most cases, this is easier because I just hit the ground and run with everyone else. For an organization that’s spinning it’s wheels though, it’s much harder. You have to rally the troops and build up an entire momentum framework.
Creating momentum from nothing
When I first meet a team, I like to get to know the group and then meet everyone one-on-one. It’s important to establish a very simple, basic relationship with them. I try to put them at ease from the get go. It’s not about trying to be their best friend or anything like that. Still, I want to know one or two interesting things that drive them as individuals and also share with them why I’m doing what I’m doing.
I take notes when we meet. This way I can remember that John likes vacations in the mountains and Beth brews her own beer. There’s nothing disingenuous about this. I just simply can’t remember everything I would like to, so I take notes and review them regularly.
One thing I strive to provide is direct access to me. I don’t ignore the chain of command, but I take the initiative to reach out on a personal level. There’s nothing more reassuring than knowing that the boss knows who I am and what’s important to me. The greater the distance a person feels from the top tier, the less they feel a part of the team.
Break it down like Elon Musk
The worst thing for any team is a losing streak. No matter how great the individuals may be as developers or people, a losing team loses hope. For this reason, I set the pace with a sequence of small – nearly guaranteed – wins that lead us to eventual bigger victories. This is how I create momentum, even at a place that appears dead.
Here’s how I might do it. I could start by deciding the first milestone is our first customer. To understand how to land the first customer though, we need to work backwards. It means we need a product, a message, and we need to communicate that message. I like to apply Elon Musk’s “First Principles Thinking” approach which he borrows from physics. It basically states that you work backward from the source instead of reasoning from analogy.
In the case of Tesla electric powered cars, analogy tells us that electric cars are too expensive since batteries are expensive. First Principles tell us that to make affordable battery powered cars you need cheaper batteries. So what are batteries made of? How much do their core components cost on the London Metal Exchange? Basically, it’s an exercise in going back to the lowest common denominator and working up from there to generate answers.
So the central truth I establish is reaching the first milestone (Customer #1). Then, working in reverse, I asked, “What are the basic fundamentals I need in order to make that sale?” Well I need a product or service, and I need a message that I’m going to communicate about the product or service. Plus I need a method to communicate my message. And that’s it. That’s how I establish the initial milestones and the subsequent supporting goals.
Momentum is exponential
Humans think linearly, but momentum is exponential. It’s hard for our minds to imagine exponentially, but this vision is critical for the modern CTO. It helps you stay focused and keeps your team motivated. Exponential vision means you see that a series of small goals will fulfill milestones, and a series of milestones will lead to explosive growth.
Before you know it, you’re sitting on a massive hundred-million-dollar organization. Seriously. Still, the only way we can get there is by taking the basic first principles and repeating them over and over again. You build momentum, and that momentum eventually gets magnified exponentially.
When driving you can stop twice as fast as you can accelerate. I’m sure you’ve experienced this when you try to change lanes – it’s much easier to slow down and get behind than it is to accelerate and get ahead. Still, it’s a serious amount of fun to put the hammer down and pass!
In the context of team momentum, it’s also true that you can stop twice as fast as you can speed up. You can destroy momentum in an instant.
Swing the machete
Getting stuck in the weeds worrying about what’s going wrong will deflate team spirit. Instead of obsessing over problems, I’ll take a step back and return to the project’s core goals. These are the simple 3 to 5 items we want to accomplish. I go back to the “think first” principles that we established.
So I ask, is there a way to avoid this problem? Is there a way to not have the problem at all? Is there a way to defer this decision or potential problem until later? I ask these type of questions, resolve the details, and pull everyone up out of the weeds. I’m okay with the problem lingering as long as I can get everyone’s focus up and forward again.
Personal frustrations can also really put a damper on things. Plus, not giving people the feedback that they’re expecting hurts momentum. For instance, John comes into the office and is super excited about a feature that he just finished and released into production. Normally you might jump up and down and high-five. John would love that and come away motivated. But today you’ve got some personal issues on your mind. So you brush it off. A downer attitude can quickly spread from John to the other team members.
I try to be happy all the time. Is this unrealistic? Nobody’s 100% perfect, but I do my best to pay attention to when I’m caught up in my own world. As a leader, I can’t drag the whole team down due to personal problems. I need to check them at the door accordingly.
Untie the tangles & set them free
Red tape is another inertia killer, and it can appear unexpectedly. Teams might be designed with a sticking point that causes buildup or feedback delay. Still, if you pay attention this usually isn’t too big of a deal since everyone will start complaining (“so-and-so” is holding things up).
These bottlenecks might be there by design, coincidence, or restructuring. For instance, someone might decide on their own to make decisions that cause delays. Maybe on another team they had this responsibility and transferred it to the new team. The smart manager will always be on the lookout for these obstacles and take fast action to clear the logjam.
What should you do?
Structuring your team’s task intentionally for momentum can be challenging. It also depends on how your culture is engineered. I have experience with building momentum and culture that you can leverage. Tell me about your situation so I can help. To set an appointment with me simply click this link to reach out. Something else on your mind? Whatever you need, I’m here. Life is meant to be done together, just reach out.
This post comes from my upcoming book, Modern CTO. Pre-register for a copy here.
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