I’ve heard many a leader, exec and entrepreneur lament a lack of “urgency” within their teams. It’s a natural reaction and something I have definitely felt myself. It comes from not observing the expected, and perhaps necessary, rate of progress. Most of the time that is a true and fair assessment of the situation — progress is stalling, or perhaps it has stalled altogether.
These conversations often come around to how some of the team are lacking the same sense of urgency we have, or not caring as much as we do or not working hard enough. Which leads to considerations of “wartime vs. peacetime” or communication strategies to explicitly state the level of urgency required. There are attempts to make the team work with more urgency but they only cause further damage.
This is because it is a misdiagnosis. The most likely root cause of this inefficacy isn’t a lack of care or sense of urgency but a lack of momentum.
Building momentum is a critical component of ongoing successful delivery and is, therefore, for every leader to consider. In this context, we can measure the outcome of momentum simply as the rate at which we achieve our goals.
More than measuring it though, we need to consider the effect of momentum on overall individual and team performance: Momentum breeds momentum. Or as more widely recognised:
Success breeds success.
Any follower of sport will recognise when a player is on a roll, playing extremely well, they can elevate their performance even further to seemingly superhuman levels. Tennis players Serena Williams and Roger Federer are prime examples.
Or when a team is on a winning streak, they go and beat stronger, higher placed teams somewhat unexpectedly. Like Leicester City winning the English Football Premier League in 2016 well beyond the expectations of practically everyone.
The psychological benefits of positive momentum build a self-confidence in the ability to be successful, which in turn creates that elevation in performance.
Negative momentum on the other hand can cause a dramatic reversal, acting as a retarding force on performance. Your championship winning team, suddenly loses a game unexpectedly, goes on a run of multiple further defeats and, with relegation a distinct possibility, they sack the team manager to arrest the slide.
A number of research studies support the notion that Psychological Momentum is one of the key vehicles in driving ongoing success of both individuals and teams, particularly in elite sports. While these studies focus on sport they consider the effect to be ubiquitous.
Our teams that are consistently achieving delivery goals are better placed, psychologically, to achieve the next ones. The problems feel more tractable and smaller. There exists a confidence within the team to get things done. Equally a team not achieving their goals will find the next one, no matter how small, incredibly difficult and often fail. In turn creating a negative slide and a visible lack of achievement.
It is critical that we, as leaders, focus on building positive momentum while arresting negative momentum.
It is entirely possible to impact momentum. In considering how to affect momentum of teams, there are some principles that I find useful:
In physics, Momentum = Velocity x Mass. The greater the Mass the greater the momentum. A team’s mass can be considered as their “Why” and the level in which the team believe that the problem they are working on matters.
It’s easy for a team deep in the details to lose sight of that purpose. Working with them to constantly and consistently reinforce their overall purpose and its importance maintains this critical mass. The team becomes engaged in the problem at hand, understanding it’s intrinsic value to customers and the business. This creates both the contextual awareness and intrinsic motivation to succeed.
If a team is truly lost, the only real option is to hit reset. Allowing the team to return to the baseline with a clean slate and to start building again. When joining a team that is stuck or spinning wheels (working hard but getting nowhere) it is imperative to drive that first hit of momentum. A small, simple achievement aligned to the overall purpose in a team that is lacking in achievements, is a step change function. It breeds the confidence to achieve the next goal.
Day 0 sets the tone for ongoing success, the majority of uplift from positive momentum comes from achieving that first goal no matter how small. And after that initial success we build on it — small goal after small goal — increasing velocity and gathering momentum.
The problem with most organisational goals or objectives is that they are generally multi-month or even multi-year objectives — whether it be Objectives & Key Results (OKRs), project milestones or product features. There is a distinct lack of feedback loop for our teams, its too long to build up momentum and you lose any initial accelerative uplift.
Scrum uses Sprint Goals as a mechanism to commit to achieving something that is progress towards the larger objective and focussing on it. When applied correctly, sprint goals enable the team to build momentum with each sprint moving the team closer to their bigger objective. I personally favour (and often insist on) teams targeting weekly goals and commitments. This is a hard one to achieve but worth the effort. Teams that are able to see week on week progress have greater momentum. They are also able to react to an inevitable negative momentum cycle more effectively.
In such a narrow time window (really 3 days of actual work) the team needs to have discipline and focus. By creating radical focus on the current goal they are able to commit to, and drive, achievements rather than constantly context switching or having too broad a short term horizon. They get to complete rather than starting multiple work streams and never finishing. They build a rhythm of achievement.
There is nothing more demotivating and energy sapping than working on something, only to find out it does not matter. [A prioritised list can have a similar impact on those teams working on those items on the bottom of the list.] If there is this type work going on in your team — stop it, in the most empathetic way as possible. It will only ever create Negative Momentum.
Celebrating even the smallest wins, has has an amplification effect. If a successful achievement is recognised, it elevates it for the team to another level. Thus increasing its impact on overall momentum.
(Admittedly, this principle is one I would consistently give myself a “Must try harder!” rating for!)
There will always be hurdles, challenges and even brick walls resulting in missed goals. However a team with momentum, will be able to pass over these because of the energy built up through their previous successes. A single failure, or set of intermittent failures, are less impactful, because they are mostly achieving goals.
Seeing a single failure is therefore not necessarily a sign of losing momentum or performance — that evidence is in the trend. I use a signal of 3 consecutively missed goals as a trigger for some action and the shorter the iteration the earlier we can re-invest in building that momentum back up.
Momentum is hard earned. It takes time, conscious effort and definitely hard work both within the team and its leadership. However, it is actually really easy to destroy momentum for our team. We can easily fall into the trap of doing the opposite of all of the above. In doing so we will reduce the effectiveness of our teams delivery.
If your team is struggling to meet your delivery expectations, and your perception is a lack of urgency, digging into the root cause will likely uncover a lack of momentum as a more primary cause.
What are the conditions that they operate with? Can we, as leaders support, in re-building momentum to get them back on track rather than accept that, suddenly, our teams do not care?
By building positive momentum, we will see small frequent goal achievement turn into milestone achievement, turn into ongoing significant business value.
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