Last week I was teaching an IT Leadership Development program with a team of senior IT executives – virtually all of them engineers by training and by inclination.  It was a very energizing and productive session, loaded with thoughtful dialog and rich, provocative discussion.

At one point, one of my colleagues on the faculty, while talking about lessons learned in organizational change stated, “Speed matters – if you don’t move fast, the change you are trying to achieve will likely dissipate.”  The group’s CIO said politely, “No, I think you are confusing speed with momentum.  And it is momentum that matters most in organizational change!”  This led to an interesting discussion where we rapidly concluded that the CIO was correct.  But in the process of that discussion, I think we all got a little more clear on the nature of transformational change, and some of the critical success factors.

I want to drill into the distinction in this post, and see if we can shed light on the murky topic of transformational change – I believe there can be some important insights from this discussion.   First, a caveat.  I was trained as an engineer, but my degree was in Electrical Engineering (my first excuse!) and to be honest, other than the instinctive application of engineering principles I apply daily, I have not given much thought to classical mechanics and the formal definition of terms, so please forgive any engineering goofs – unless they significantly impact my key points, in which case, bring it on!  I’m also going to stay away from quantum mechanics, and the particular spin (if you’ll excuse the pun) that the quantum world adds to classical mechanics.

In dealing with the concepts of speed and momentum, we have to sort out some distinctions with the lazy ways we use these terms in everyday speech, and their mechanical differences.  We tend to use speed and velocity interchangeably.  In fact, velocity is a vector, so it has direction.  Speed is the magnitude of velocity – it doesn’t have direction.  So, strictly speaking, we should be talking about the velocity of change, given that direction is important.  You can imagine a situation where I say, “Fred and Anne are both changing their facilitation behaviors very quickly.”  We might think that’s a good thing, but if Fred is becoming a more effective facilitator, while Anne is becoming less effective, that’s not a good thing.

The speed/velocity distinction is important to understanding momentum, which is the product of the mass and velocity of an object.  Velocity is defined as the rate of change of position of an object.   In everyday speech, mass is often synonymous with weight, but strictly speaking, weight means the strength of the gravitational pull on the object – how heavy it is, measured in units of force.

So, we often talk about speed, when we really mean velocity, and where we should be referring to momentum, which takes into account the mass we are trying to move.  So, the sum of small movements every day across a large organization will have far greater impact than if a few people make great leaps of change.  I came across this great quote (and a nice little audio post) on

Most business owners make a horrible mistake.  They confuse the words ‘momentum’ and ‘speed.’  The people who really succeed do little things every single day.  The little things start to add up.  The speedsters want to go from start to finish in 55 seconds.  They want to reach the top of the Google ranking in next to no time.  They want to learn a skill like copy-writing or article writing in three weeks.  They want speed. And as you already know: Speed kills.”

This speed/momentum distinction also reminds me of the superb work of Jim Collins and the flywheel analogy he introduced in his classic book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t.   In his research for that book, Collins learned that companies who make the transition don’t do so overnight.   He analogizes their success to that of a flywheel, where it is sustained momentum that accelerates the energy output and ultimately drives transformation.

This also reminds me of the wisdom of the great sage of total quality Edwards Deming, and the first of his 14 points: Constancy of purpose.

Create constancy of purpose for continual improvement of products and service to society, allocating resources to provide for long range needs rather than only short term profitability, with a plan to become competitive, to stay in business, and to provide jobs.

As I look at some clients I’ve worked with over the years with their “flavor of the month” change programs, it is no wonder why they move backwards rather than forwards, and why their employees adopt the “this too shall pass” attitude over time, ignoring strategic change initiatives.