Building momentum: How to move your small business forward

In his classic book “Good to Great“, Jim Collins introduces the concept of change in your business being like a flywheel:

Now picture a huge, heavy flywheel. It’s a massive, metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle. It’s about 100 feet in diameter, 10 feet thick, and it weighs about 25 tons. That flywheel is your company. Your job is to get that flywheel to move as fast as possible, because momentum—mass times velocity—is what will generate superior economic results over time.1

Your business may be smaller–so your flywheel may only way 2.5 tons–but the principal is the same. To get your business growing, you need your whole team pushing continuously in the same direction. You need ways to motivate your employees. That’s how your business gains momentum.

how to move your small business forward

It’s a simple concept; yet I rarely see it at work in small businesses. Why is that?

Business owners think, “We’re nimble, we can change.”

One of the best things about small business is that we are nimble. We can respond to the needs of our customers so much more quickly than our larger competitors. This can be a real advantage in the midst of major economic or social shifts; small businesses are poised to take the lead. However, when that nimbleness is used to respond too frequently; when we always react to customer’s moods, preferences or peccadillos, the momentum we are trying to gain can suffer.

As a business owner, one of your jobs is to have a clear sense of direction for the business. This sense of direction is more than just what you are “hearing” from your clients. If you are leading your clients to what they need (which is often different from what they want) you won’t be swayed by their whims. Instead, you will lead your company in a consistent, strong direction. That consistency is key to gaining momentum.

What to do:

You need to take some time to develop a clear perspective on the direction of your industry and your company. Somehow you need a guidepost, or a compass to keep you “true” when clients and competition gets you spinning.

  • Get your team together and engage them in helping to write it down (some people call this strategic planning).
  • Create some metaphors for your message, some images or stories that help you communicate it.
  • Write and speak about your point of view. Writing and speaking help you to clarify your ideas (to yourself and to your team).

Because when the direction isn’t clear, people will push in different directions.

As a business grows you need more communication and more frequent communication to ensure that your team knows, and is working in concert with, your vision and strategy. You may have that strong vision for where your business needs to be–and you may have explained it to your team once or twice–but then you went off to speak at a conference, and were out with clients, and took a short vacation, and you’ve been doing some writing… During that time, your team has been solving problems and putting out fires. That stirring vision talk has become a distant memory.

It’s not that you don’t have a vision; it’s that it isn’t real for your team. As a result, everyone is pushing as hard as they can, but since they aren’t working toward a common goal, the momentum gains are slow or nonexistent.

What to do:

I understand that you are busy, and you can’t be in the office all the time; that’s fine. But you have to be communicating your vision more frequently, in more and different ways to make sure the whole team “gets” it.

  • Start a blog. Michael Hyatt started his blog when he was CEO of Thomas Nelson as a way to communicate (primarily) with his employees. Write once a week and describe a piece of how you see your vision coming together.
  • Catch people doing good. When you find someone who’s pushing in the right direction, stop and say “Thank you.” You’d be surprised at the power of a good thank you from the boss.
  • Have lunch with some team members regularly. Nothing fancy, nothing formal, just pull out your brown bag and sit down at a lunch table and visit with some folks. Listen a lot and see what you hear. Reward what’s going in the right direction, and redirect what’s not.

Employee Turnover

Any time we lose a productive person it hurts the growth of our business. Whenever someone leaves the team, stops pushing against the flywheel for a minute to say good-bye, then they stop to see: who’s getting what seat? how are we covering for the empty spot?… It’s disruptive. While it’s true that some level of employee turnover “just happens”– people move, retire, change careers. It’s inevitable. But given the cost, the time to recruit, train and re-form your team, we want to minimize turnover as much as we possibly can.

What to do: People stay where they feel safe, where they feel like they can make a difference, and where they feel like they can grow and develop.

  • Consistent communication about your vision for the future, and concrete steps to get the business going in that direction help people feel safe. To do this you gotta get that clear sense of direction for your business, and brainstorm ways to communicate it.
  • Offering training and development opportunities (better yet plans for training and development) mean that you have people with the skills you need for your company to grow; and your team knows that they will have opportunities to grow too!

There are days when we all feel more like Sisyphus –you know him; he’s the guy who pushed the rock up a hill only see it roll back down again. But if we have a well communicated plan, and a team all pushing in the same direction, we should start to see that flywheel gain momentum. And the faster it spins, the harder it is to stop.

What’s your clear direction for your business? How do you communicate it to your team?

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Photo credit: takomabibelot

Brad Farris

As principal advisor of Anchor Advisors, Brad Farris has experience leading businesses & business owners into new levels of growth and success. Through his work with over 100 Chicago area small businesses he has experience in guiding founders and business owners through the pitfalls and joys of growing their business. Prior to joining Anchor Advisors, Brad spent over 10 years managing business units for a family-owned conglomerate with sales of $2 million to $25 million.  When he's not working, Brad enjoys cycling, cooking and the NFL. He is married with 5 children and lives in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with him on Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn.


  1. I like the analogy of the flywheel to express the importance of building momentum to move forward and to be organized adequately to keep that momentum. We don’t want to be anywhere like Sisyphus.

    I feel that it is a concept and mindset that applies also to solo preneur who have a vision of growth. If the direction isn’t clear enough and the tools not adequate, we can also feel like the vision is blured. The elements of succes we would have applied to drive a momentum solo will be easier to duplicate in a timely and effective manner as the team grows.

    • Turenne;

      You are so right. The same applies for solos. If the way isn’t clear, if we don’t know FOR SURE what we need to do next, our brain hesitates, procrastinates, and doesn’t make progress. Thanks!

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