You know what momentum feels like. You can feel it in any group or crowd, that lift, when everyone starts to move together. Facilitating self-organization in open space meetings with hundreds of participants, I learned to navigate by that sensation, in the room and even in the larger conference space.
When I started coaching new agile/scrum teams, what I’d previously applied to a three-day event got stretched out over weeks and months. It’s still self-organization. I’m still inviting people to take direct responsibility for their experience. I’m still inviting and sensing for and wanting to feed that “lift.” But the longer timeline let me refine my sensing and distinguish seven layers of momentum, a continuum of development, each wave building atop the previous ones.
That said, no team or organization builds these momentums in an orderly, linear way. It’s more a shifting of the center of mass, or the center of learning, a kind of pulsation in their learning edge, if you will.
They are presented here in what I think is their naturally arising order, which implies that none can really be skipped over and ignored. Indeed, if we take the example of Scrum and self-organization in software development teams, much of what goes wrong will often be traced back to having skipped the first step: a momentum of good personal experience.
Too often organizations fail to build the kind of momentum necessary for what Scrum focuses on: Learning, Planning, and Delivery. As a result, teams struggle with those and never get to even try for Organization, Customer and Systemic momentum.
So here is what I think it takes to develop great teams and organizations:
- A momentum of personal experience. This starts with voluntary self-selection, when people choose to be part of the game, when they feel safe and valued, and when they see the purpose as meaningful. The simplest way to communicate and achieve this momentum is through invitation. We can measure this in terms of engagement, the six criteria, happiness/joy, and so on, but the bottom line is that great work can only be done and sustained by people who CHOOSE for themselves to do that work. Not just when they take the job, but every day. Remember, everyone is fully engaged on their first day of work, and then, too often, it’s all downhill from there.
- A momentum of learning (and improving). Once people have some choice, feel safe and valued, they can be honest about gaps. They can suggest improvements without sounding sour. They can dare to experiment and fail. Learning builds confidence for everything else.
- A momentum of planning (and refinement). Once teams start learning and improving together, they can be more honest about how much they can do in a cycle, about what they don’t know, about how long things will take. Even if it’s not as fast as they want, at least they know that they’re getting better.
- A momentum of (committing and) delivering. Once teams can be honest about what’s possible, and make reliable plans, they can start delivering dependable results.
- A momentum of organization. When teams start delivering more and better, and more dependably so, the groups around them take note. The spirit, learning, planning and delivery momentums seep into these groups and challenge them to improve their own work.
- Momentum with customers. In software, one of those surrounding groups is often a marketing or sales group that controls access to customers. When they sense the previous momentums building, they more readily facilitate direct connections with customers, so the team can learn even more and faster. And deliver better.
- Systemic momentum or… A momentum of momentums. The holy grail. When these various waves start crossing each other, turning up new patterns and opportunities, feeding on each other in virtuous cycles. Or, if you like, the whole system is lifted by the same great swell.
How to use this perspective?
First, start at the beginning. Take care of personal experience. EVERYTHING else always depends on that. Inviting matters.
Then, as the working, learning, planning, etc go on, keep sensing for where the team or organization is on the continuum. What’s their learning edge? What’s their most important obstacle? Tend to that.
In Scrum, for instance, if planning is the breakdown, is it the refining, the sizing, or sprint planning? Again, pick the biggest obstacle and work on that. Identifying, prioritizing and targeting the most important blockers of momentum, just like we’d normally prioritize features to build.
But in my experience, it works this way everywhere. Every team. Every organization. If a team’s not amazing, track your way backward from Systemic, see where things breakdown, and work from the level that precedes it. Build from what’s working, not from the breakdown.