How can you build and sustain momentum through complex improvement journeys? In this episode, Simon identifies the overlooked role of leaders in sustaining momentum through improvement work. He unpacks simple strategies leaders can take to rebuild their team’s energy, belief and motivation.
Momentum, that is finding momentum and sustaining momentum, through the messy middle of an improvement initiative, is one of the most important roles of a leader. Sometimes we spend a huge amount of time thinking about strategy and planning. And hey, I’m a big fan of clarity. We also are under a lot of pressure these days to think about monitoring and evaluation, but sometimes I think we overlook the human change dynamics of what it’s like to be overloaded, overwhelmed, and define the improvement work that we are leading, is starting to get bogged down and stuck.
Maybe we had a good start, but now so many other things have come in and crowded out the space. We lost one of the professional learning slots that we were going to run. Someone leading the work was off sick for a few weeks themselves, and then had another few weeks where their own family was sick, and they were on and off. Maybe there were other disruptions and things that came on in. I wonder whether you can think right now of a piece of work, good work, that made a good start, that has lost momentum. And I want to say this is one of the most important things to be putting attention to.
Think about all the work it takes just to formulate initial ideas, to get them into a plan, to build some alignment and coherence. “Yep, we’re going to do this.” And now you’re off and you’ve launched, and over and over again, I find projects in term two, term three, term five, or term six of their implementation kind of just floundering. And they’re kind of just around, and I might turn up to an implementation meeting with a school or a network I’m working with, and I’ll say, “Hey, what’s been happening in the last month?” And there’ll be sort of a guilty look on the person’s face, who’s leading the work. And hey, that’s not my job. I’m not here to make anyone feel guilty. I’m here to solve implementation problems alongside teams, but I look and they say, “Ah, I can’t believe it’s been a month since we last spoke.”
And I’m thinking to myself, “I think that’s what you said to me last time as well.” It’s not about me, it’s about the sense that this was work, this might have been in the top two or three things that a school was doing in teaching and learning or in well-being. This is not a side project. This is a main thing.
And yet in the whirlpool and busyness of school life, you know better than I do, that just the running of the place can easily take up the full bandwidth and time. And sometimes once we’ve got something up and started, now that we’ve put that initial energy in, we underestimate how important the role of leadership is in sustaining that motivation and that momentum. And those two things are utterly linked. If the people involved in the work, potentially and particularly the core implementation of leadership team, if they experience a couple of weeks or a couple of months where no meaningful progress is made, they will start to divert their discretionary energy elsewhere.
And it’s on the leader to begin again. To find a time, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the first of a term, or the first of a month, acknowledge that we haven’t made as much progress recently and other priorities, perhaps for good reason, have come in. But now what we want to do together is refine momentum. I’ve done this recently with a range of projects, and I’ve just said, “Hey, the first of the month, let’s begin again, all right?” Rather than trying to make up for all the lost time, that’s what we often do by the way, when we’ve noticed that we’ve lost some momentum, we think, “Oh, I need to button up just get going again. I need to get going again and do all the things that we didn’t yet do,” and they overload themselves. And guess what? They end up stalling out.
Instead, the number one way to reform momentum is to constrain the next phase of work. That is, to focus in on a shorter time horizon. Maybe it’s something closer to four to six weeks, rather than 10 weeks to a quarter, to constrain and say, “Okay, in the next month, or the next five to six weeks, what are the one, two, or three things that are manageable and important that we want to progress?”
So constrain the time, constrain the number of things you commit to doing, and my rule of thumb is do one less thing than you think you will be able to do. Do one less thing than you think you will be able to do. So if the team constructs a list of four or five things, you say, “Okay, four things? Okay, what are the three?” And people say, “No, we want to do these four.” “Yeah, what are the three?”
Help people constrain and work on a manageable amount. Because if you’ve lost some momentum, the most important thing in the coming month is not to complete the project. It is not to make up for all the time lost. It is to build a shared belief again that these people working in this way can get moving again. The most important thing is to sustain or rebuild momentum. Once you have a group of people with momentum, adding additional layers of challenge and complexity is so much easier. In fact, many of them will ask for it, because they are building a sense of flow, a sense of progress, and it becomes addictive. Let’s keep going, let’s keep moving.
When leaders often see that they’ve stalled out too often, they then self-flagellate, they apologise, they get into a cathartic debrief of all the different things that have happened and why, just leave. I bet you acted exactly the way you needed to, given all the other things you or other team members were dealing with. I think that’s a really lovely frame, by the way.
I had a dear friend of mine say to me after I’d had a really disrupted month, and he said to me, “You know, Simon, it sounds like you dealt with that month exactly how you needed to.” I’d been going on about feeling that one or two of the projects I was working on had fallen behind, and the sickness in the family, and kids off school, and I was frustrated, he goes, “Hey, it just sounds like you did exactly what you needed to do in that month.”
And I don’t want to say that to you. If you’ve had a month, or a term, or half a year where you think, “Oh, I haven’t progressed at work. I’m just frustrated at myself.” Hey, I bet you have done exactly what you probably needed to do given all the other constraints and conditions and demands on your life. And I reckon we can give that positive frame to others on the team that might be feeling the same. And then just begin again. Constrain.
Let’s think about the next four to six weeks. Let’s think about no more than two or three things we’re going to do. Let’s pick two to three things that aren’t overly complex and that we have a high degree of confidence that we can get done. Let’s hold ourselves to account to do this, and maybe have a check-in one or two weeks, just for 15 minutes to check, yep, we’re making progress, and let’s close out this month, I love doing it in a calendar month, by the way. There’s something magic about it. Let’s close out the month, and look each other in the eye and say, “Yeah, we’re back. We’re in progress again. We found momentum.” And once you’re in momentum, anything else is possible.
Don’t overlook your role in building and sustaining momentum. In the messy middle of improvement, many leaders overlook their role in that space. They obsess in the front end about strategy, they obsess in the back end about evaluation, that in the middle, we need you just as much, if not more so, to build and sustain momentum, and when it’s dropped off to notice it, and to implement a strategy of constraining the time, constraining the tasks, and giving people the experience of progress again.
And if they have that, what we call a mastery experience, going after and doing something and seeing that they’ve done it, they’re going to build a greater sense of collective efficacy, a greater belief that as a group this project can make progress. And from there, you can build to the next level. Build and sustain momentum. That’s one of your key roles in the teams and the organisations that you lead.