In my last post, I talked about redirecting energy during a transformational change from protecting “the way things are” toward addressing the ambiguities and confusion that occur in the shift. In this context, momentum refers to the forward motion of energy through the role sequence (advocate to initiating sponsor to primary sustaining sponsors to local sustaining sponsors to targets) toward realization of the change. Regardless of which roles are involved in the energy transfer at any given time, the presence of strong momentum dramatically increases the chances for realization results. Alternatively, transfers that produce no more than moderate momentum can stall initiatives or compromise installation outcomes.

Energy transfers can result in a strong, moderate, or weak momentum exchange, which means that merely passing energy through the role sequence is not enough. Momentum must reach a certain magnitude within each person in the chain to provide the level of energy needed to ultimately achieve true realization results. When we achieve this degree of energy strength, it means the person on the receiving end of the transfer has become fully committed to the endeavor’s success.

As each role engages the next, we can test for momentum transfer by noting whether the change is being driven by the next person or group in the sequence, or if it is still relying on scrutinizing and prodding from the previous level above. For example, if sufficient realization momentum has been transferred from an initiating sponsor to a primary sustaining sponsor, the primary sustaining sponsor moves the endeavor forward based on his or her own impetus for action rather than by relying on the initiating sponsor to vitalize the effort.

The critical question here is, “Off whose energy does the initiative live?” If one level in the role sequence becomes focused on another issue or problem and temporarily lessens his or her attention toward a change, does the next level continue the pursuit, or does the project falter or disappear altogether? Sustaining the required momentum for realization of change means that each level in the network of players drives the initiative from its own energy base and transfers that commitment to the levels below.

Critical mass comes at that point in the process of mobilizing commitment down the organization where forward progress is so strong that failure or withdrawal from the effort is highly unlikely. At the point of critical mass, it’s possible but extremely improbable that the initiative won’t reach its full realization potential. Critical mass thresholds depend more on political power and personalities than anything else, so they can occur anywhere along the role sequence. In most cases, however, critical mass is secured at the energy transfer juncture where local sustaining sponsors start to reinforce the realization of a project’s true intent based on their own drive for its success. Once the target’s local sponsor displays resolve and tenacity toward the change based on his or her own commitment, realization of the intended outcomes is extremely probable. Faltering at this point is very rare.

Throughout the process of unfolding an organizational change, various risk factors may or may not serve as counterweights to push back against reaching critical mass. Here are five risks that can keep an initiative from reaching critical mass.

  • Sponsorship: To what extent are the appropriate leaders, managers, and supervisors unwilling or unable to provide the level of commitment needed to sustain the project?
  • Capacity: To what extent do users lack the intellectual, emotional, and physical resources needed to adjust to the changes required by the initiative?
  • Culture: To what extent do the behaviors and mindsets that are necessary to achieve the goals of the change differ from those currently shared throughout the organization?
  • Resistance: To what extent do various stakeholders exert overt and/or covert reluctance to support the effort?
  • Intent: To what extent is there understanding, commitment, and alignment around the desired outcomes from change demonstrated throughout the organization?

When one or more of these factors impedes realization results, we have a classic conflict of two opposing forces, where the outcome is dictated by the prevailing strength of one side over the other. The force that drives change is the energy transferred from advocates through sponsors to the targets. Whatever positive momentum this generates may then face a counterforce produced by one or more risk factors pushing the organization in the opposite direction. If the counter-change forces triumph, it’s unlikely that the critical mass threshold will be crossed at the local-sustaining-sponsor level, and the initiative is either installed, but not realized, or terminated altogether. The graphic below shows these forces at work.

Momentum and Critical mass

Illustration by Luc Galoppin*


  • The horizontal axis indicates the length of time a change effort has been engaged.
  • The vertical axis depicts the path of momentum transfer as it moves from advocates through the layers of sponsors all the way to targets. This axis also incorporates the influence of forces moving against change in the form of poor sponsorship, inadequate capacity, an unaligned culture, strong resistance, and/or weak synergy.
  • The solid line shows a change in which momentum meets little pushback from the risk factors and moves quickly to realization.
  • The broken line shows an initiative that faced some significant risk factor counterforce and slowly but steadily overcame the organization’s tendency to maintain the status quo.
  • The dotted line shows a project in which momentum made some headway at the beginning of its implementation but then became overwhelmed by the counterforces before critical mass was reached with the local sustaining sponsors.

Application

You can assess whether sufficient progress is being made toward realization of important change goals by understanding and applying the two perspectives: momentum and critical mass. Specifically, change facilitators can use these two dynamics to track the status of important initiatives, determine the likelihood of achieving desired results, pinpoint problematic “transfer points” in the role sequence, and formulate corrective strategies to facilitate the proper energy flow. Because of this, I believe momentum development and achievement of critical mass have two important roles:

–        They should be thought of as fundamental competencies for practitioners—basic elements to realizing the ultimate desired results from investments in strategic change endeavors.

–        Momentum and critical mass should be formally incorporated into implementation plans—monitored and reported on like other key indicators of success.

For me, momentum and critical mass are key to understanding and orchestrating the dynamics of organizational change. What is your view?

Go to the beginning of this series.

Next: Guest Interview with Luc Galoppin

*More about Luc here.