Small steps are big gains in momentum

If you have tried to get a group of people to get moving in a new direction, you know that inertia often wins over action. The problem is compounded when one or more people resist what you’d like them to do.

Fortunately, there are ways to overcome inertia. One trick is to get people to take small steps rather than committing to a major change all at once. When several people take a few small steps forward, momentum starts to build and it becomes easier and more natural to keep moving forward.

One of my favorite illustrations of this concept comes from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Collins uses the concept of a flywheel as a metaphor for organizational change. Here is an edited excerpt of Collin’s description:

Picture a huge, heavy flywheel — a massive disk mounted horizontally on an axle — weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible. Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first . . . You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns . . . four . . . five . . . Then, at some point, breakthrough! The momentum of the thing kicks in your favor!

In Collins’ words, no one action is a miracle movement that leads to organizational change. Rather, like with the flywheel, momentum builds as a result of numerous, additive actions.

The flywheel image came to mind this spring when I had the opportunity to witness the power of successive small steps at work. I was honored to be asked to speak at a retreat being held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. One of the activities early in the day was a sitting volleyball competition. In honor of the Wounded Warriors who would be competing that week at the OTC, our group was told that we’d have the opportunity to play a version of volleyball that those who had lost legs would play in the games. We’d be sitting on the floor and moving like crabs to get to the ball. Well, I was dressed in my presenting clothes and thought, “I won’t play, I’ll just watch.” Several others in my group muttered the same thing.

Our instructor started the session by asking everyone — even the spectators — to sit on the court. So we all did. Next he gave some pointers and asked everyone — even the spectators — to count off into teams. So we all did. He then asked each team to form a circle and just practice tossing the ball around — so we all did.

You see where this is going, right? Soon ALL of us — even those who swore we’d only be spectators — were playing and having a great time.

It struck me that often I can get too caught up in trying to motivate people through persuasion and conversation. While both are important techniques to have in our toolkits, another I will be sure to add is simply getting people moving by asking them to take small steps.

Mack is a Woodland Park based consultant, speaker, and facilitator who specializes in leading and communicating change. She can be reached at Wendy@WendyMack.com.