When my daughter was in eighth grade she played on two basketball teams, you could see that one team had it and one team did not. The school team and club team consisted of many of the same girls, but one had momentum and the other did not. When she was playing for the club team, my daughter was more aggressive and had more fun. She always knew that they could come back from a big deficit to win. They played with attitude and heart.
March is momentum month. March Madness, the NACC men’s basketball tournament of 67 games, kicks off next weekend with Selection Sunday and then the fun begins. During the annual drive for the Final Four, it’s the intangible that feels very tangible,it’s more than a track record, it’s attitude enhanced ability—momentum is everything.
Momentum is a shared vision rewarded by a string of success. It’s a bond that lifts and transforms creating an unspoken pledge, “We must perform.” It demands, drives, directs energy and determines destiny. Leaders create momentum by changing what needs to be changed, eliminating friction, knocking down barriers,and knowing where to push, and when to watch, and what to say at half time.
Momentum is hard to put your finger on, but easy to feel. It is a positive attitude that pervades a team or an organization, a faith that somehow things will work out for the best. You may be able to spot it in warm ups or see it in the first few minutes of a basketball game. It is what Cskiszentmihalyi called flow, a stream of consciousness characterized by intense concentration where mind and body meld action and awareness into periods of peak performance.
Though less intense and more sporadic than in sporting events, momentum, or the lack thereof, can also be observed in larger organizations. You can feel it in the first five minutes when you visit a school. It takes a little longer when you visit a business, but after a few conversations you can tell if there is positive momentum or not. It is the feeling you would get visiting Google but would be less likely to feel at Sears headquarters. Momentum is the clarity of focus and urgency of action found in successful organizations. It’s fun when you have it – it is hard to get it back after you have lost it.
Specifically, it’s a culture of improvement is key to creating positive momentum. On Friday I discussed learning to improve with Dr. Tony Bryk of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Tony and team keep asking networks of schools and community colleges, “What does good look like and how does one go about getting good?” An active improvement cycle creates quick wins that feels like a winning streak in basketball.
While it is intangible, momentum is no accident. It is something that team leaders, coaches, principals and presidents consciously create. You can see it in their attitude, watch it in their actions, and hear it in their words. They help everyone focus on the team and the goal. They knock down barriers and find ways to bring out the best in everyone. When it is slipping away, they know just when to call time out. Momentum takes focused goals, sustained discipline, a little success, and a lot of faith.
Good Work is a Sunday series about finding and doing mission-related work. It started as journal entries while serving as a public school superintendent in the 90s. We’d love to hear about your good work.