Acceleration and Momentum

What's your vector?

When thinking about organizational performance, I typically default to thinking about acceleration. If you’re going to measure, it’s often more useful to measure whether a team is getting faster or slower, than to simply measure a team’s speed. Recently, though, I have started to include another concept in my thinking: momentum.

Dipping our toe into Newtonian physics, an object’s momentum is the product of the object’s mass and its velocity. Basically, I think of momentum like this: what would it take to stop something? A heavy thing going at a velocity has greater momentum than a lighter thing going at that same velocity. A faster thing will have a greater momentum than a slower thing.

Why is understanding momentum important? To change an object’s momentum requires application of force. Increasing the momentum of a massive thing will require more force than increasing the momentum of a lighter thing. One of the benefits of “agile” organizations is that they tend to be smaller, and therefore require less force to gain momentum.

But there’s another important aspect here. Velocity is a vector, which means that it has both a magnitude and a direction. If something is heading in one direction, it requires force to change directions. The mental model here is the challenge of turning bureaucracies. To change direction of such a massive object (e.g., an aircraft carrier) is going to require an enormous amount of force.

And there’s another thing, too. Before applying force to create momentum, it’s worth being certain that you want to go in that direction. In my day-to-day work, this means that we need to focus on making sure we’re building the right thing before we spend energy building anything. Because once you’ve got momentum, it takes effort to change it.

Momentum, then, is a complement to thinking about acceleration. As an organization gains velocity (i.e., accelerates), you also gain momentum. But if the organization is not well aligned, redirection will require ever-increasing force.