Pushing the Flywheel

This piece originally appeared as a guest blog on Michael Port's Book Yourself Solid webpage

In the early 2000s my wife, Bizzy, and I moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana where I was a member of the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard.  After we settled into our new home there in the summer of 2002 Bizzy began a search for something interesting and challenging to do in our new town.  Having always been a singer, she jumped at the chance to audition for the newly formed Fort Wayne Bach Collegium, the brainchild of a Bach scholar by the name of Dan Reuning. 

Dr. Reuning, in addition to being a walking encyclopedia of all things Bach, in addition to being a starry-eyed optimist.  Starting from scratch in a medium-sized midwestern town, he assembled a group of 20 amateur singers to perform one of the most magnificent pieces of classical music ever composed.  All of this was to be perfected on a couple of nights per week of practice after work.

I genuinely feared for the group.  I didn’t see any path that led from square one to their ultimate goal, a goal so audacious one had to suspend disbelief to think that they could pull it off.   Fortunately, Dr. Reuning understood something that I didn’t--how to push the flywheel. 

Pushing the flywheel is a concept that Jim Collins cited as a successful practice in the fifteen companies he profiled in his book Good to Great.  It’s a metaphor based on the concept of a mechanical flywheel.  Flywheels are heavy wheels that operate under Newton’s first law, the law of inertia.  This law says that an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  Conversely, an object in motion tends to stay in motion at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an outside force.  It’s hard to get the flywheel to start spinning—to overcome inertia.  When that first little push finally does cause it to move, the slow speed bears little resemblance to the high speed it’s capable of reaching.   If you’re not the patient type, you may be tempted to abandon the task because it feels as though you’ll never get the thing up to speed.  If you’re patient, eventually, you’ll start to see that lots of little pushes over time cause the flywheel to spin so fast that inertia now keeps it in motion with very little effort from you. 

The businesses highlighted in Good to Great recognized the power of the spinning flywheel.  They understood that little victories pile up over time and produce an inertia-like effect among their people.  They didn’t focus on the end game audacious goal, which can feel overwhelming and demotivating.  They made little pushes on the flywheel to score frequent small wins. 

It’s easy to let inertia keep you from making progress toward your goals.  When the goal is a lofty one that seems far removed from your present position, the sheer number of things that need to happen before you realize the goal can be overwhelming.  An object at rest tends to stay at rest.  If you’re paralyzed looking at the totality of the tasks needed to fulfill the goal before figuring out task number one, the object at rest is you.   To conquer inertia, the key is to push the flywheel to start it moving.  The push doesn’t have to be big.  In fact, it’s best if it’s not. 

Write one page for the book you’ve promised yourself you’d write this year.  It doesn’t have to be the best prose the world has seen.  Just get the words on the page.  Don’t think about how your effort equates to 1/300th of the finished product.  Think about how one page is infinitely more than the zero you had yesterday.

Put on your running shoes and get out of the house to go for the first training run for that marathon you signed up for.  You don’t need to run 26.2 miles today, but in six months, you’ll be glad you got out and ran 2. 

Make just one call to a potential client or former client to start the conversation.  Push the flywheel.    

Despite the complexity of the B-Minor Mass and the relative inexperience of some of the Collegium members, the piece started to come together little by little.  They chose small sections to work on and then practiced them until they had them down, each section a push on the flywheel.  As smaller pieces became more polished, they added them to the Collegium’s metaphorical flywheel which at that point was spinning on it’s own and bringing the members along with it.

On the day of their first performance, the music swelled up from the stage and washed over me as I sat in my seat in the balcony, and I was a believer in pushing the flywheel. 

Jeffrey OrrComment