The Momentum of Business: Pace in Practice

My son just finished up his junior high basketball season and watching him and his patient and passionate coaching staff, I made the following observation: the game isn’t won or lost just by the skill of the players or even by the teamwork of the individuals, but also by the momentum or pace of the game.  Even in professional sports, in leagues like the NBA or FIFA, games are often won or lost for reasons that have little to do with player capability, and everything to do with player performance, which has a context on the court or field, and in the minds of the players.  Just like anything, there is a balance between speed, quality, and scope and in sport, as in business, pace can account for a lot.

Sometimes you must speed up.  When the other team needs time to set up their play or you want the kids to keep the head in the game, I observed how useful it can be to speed up the game play.  To pass the ball more.  To run a play quickly to take the other team off-guard.  Our local college football team, the University of Oregon Ducks, made a strategy in the last few years of the “hurry up offense,” which played the athleticism of the team and could effectively wear out opponents by not giving them time to rest or set-up.

Staying ahead of the competition requires some hurry up offense in business as well.  Sometimes the spoils go to the company that is first to market with an innovation, who out maneuvers their competitors in devising winning channel programs, or who establishes a new category, positioning their products as the benchmark to which other offerings are compared.  Although the idea of a “first mover advantage” is often-overstated (as market pioneering is a high-risk strategy), there is something to be said about being first to do things well.  Marvin Lieberman and Steven Blank have both written that what is often attributed as a “first mover advantage” is often a “fast follower” advantage instead.  In any case, it requires a speed and responsiveness to take advantage of market shifts, technology changes, and customer insights to deliver sustainable advantage.

Sometimes you should slow down. My son’s coach would often counsel the boys to slow the game down when their play because too erratic or error-filled.  Sometimes they’d let the game get the best of them and make simple mistakes.  Just slowing down the game, improved their ball handling, their passing, and their shooting percentages.

Sometimes this is true in business as well.  As a person with a well-developed sense of urgency, I want to rush into new ideas or start experiments without all the information.  Sometimes this works well, but often if you take a moment to bring other team mates on board, to plan for contingencies, or to research alternatives, you can arrive at a better outcome.  “As fast as possible, as slow as necessary” can be a much better approach.

Momentum affects your perception of the outcome.  Of course, “momentum” is a physics concept describing the ability of an object to continue moving because of its mass and velocity.  But in sport, psychological momentum is the effect that preceding events have on the perception of the probability of winning or losing.  Sports commentators will often comment on momentum changes in a game and credit momentum with changes of energy or confidence.  A team on a “hot streak” will inevitably win the game, it seems.  Teams that are on the losing end of a change of momentum, can appear to do nothing right. 

Whether momentum actually affects the outcome or simply the mindset of the players (causing them to get flustered or make simple mistakes) can be debated and has been the topic of articles in the Journal of Sports BehaviorPerceptual and Motor SkillsJournal of Applied Sports Psychology, and Cognitive Psychology, to name a few.  The consensus appears to be that the concept of a “hot hand” is a fallacy.  In fact, a study conducted by Jonathan Koehler and Caryn Conley and published in the Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology sought to find evidence of sequential dependency across shots and in general they found that no shooter they studied had significantly more runs that would have been predicted by chance.  Yet, there is a perception among fans and players alike that momentum can change the confidence of the players and the energy of the game.

The same is true in a business context.  If a sales person is rejected three times in a row, they are a bit less confident the fourth time.  If a marketing team perceives that the customer has launched a winning innovation, they can begin to doubt their strategies and might pre-maturely abandon what would have been a better approach long-term.  Companies with strong brands can leverage their reputation to a string of successes which are made easier by their valuable brand or history of innovation, but it hardly guarantees product success.  If the scale of the risks matches the appetite and capabilities of the company, nothing in a business context is truly final or fatal.  If you treat your customers with respect, you nearly always have time to course correct and make changes.  But only if the leadership keeps their problem-solving wits about them and applies what they have learned in failure to their next opportunity for the win.  No company has a “hot hand” forever.  And no company is a chronic loser, if they are taking advantage of the learnings along the way.  And they remember the things that are within their control and seek to maximize their choices along the way.

I have spent my career in technology, where the pace of change and innovation is high.  This has illustrated to me vividly the importance of controlling the pace of the game you are playing.  Going quickly when the circumstances allow.  Slowing down with the circumstances warrant.  And keeping your head in the game, in good times and in bad.  And with great teamwork and customer engagement, the record can show great results!

This article was posted on LinkedIn Pulse