The Flywheel Effect at Trail Life USA

I like management books that examine the real world and draw reasonable conclusions from observed and documented data.  I don’t like to spend time on texts where authors deliver opinions based on a single case study or try to convince us that they have all the answers.built to last

I have especially enjoyed reading books by Jim Collins (Built to Last and Good to Great for example).  He and his research teams worked hard to be methodical and were willing to admit when their own expectations or biases were proved wrong or false by the real world data.

I’ve been watching Trail Life USA grow over the past months, and it’s caused me to reflect on how much has changed since this time last year.  Last year, we were bailing out basements full of water from Hurricane Sandy and trying to celebrate Thanksgiving as best we could — thankful for what we had, and soberly remembering those who had much less to celebrate.

I remember the surprise and dismay in late January when news leaked about a plan to radically change BSA membership standards without any input from members, COs or volunteers.  I remember urgent emails between me and AJ Smith, President of the Association of Baptists for Scouting, and Chip Turner trying to figure out how to best rally support and get people praying for wisdom and action.  I remember the first, early appearances of “On My Honor” and the rush of families asking me, as scoutmaster, my opinion on “what will happen if….

In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins offers a great insight on change:

Picture an egg. Day after day, it sits there. No one pays attention to it. No one notices it. Certainly no one takes a picture of it or puts it on the cover of a celebrity-focused business magazine. Then one day, the shell cracks and out jumps a chicken.

All of a sudden, the major magazines and newspapers jump on the story: “Stunning Turnaround at Egg!” and “The Chick Who Led the Breakthrough at Egg!” From the outside, the story always reads like an overnight sensation—as if the egg had suddenly and radically altered itself into a chicken.

Now picture the egg from the chicken’s point of view.

While the outside world was ignoring this seemingly dormant egg, the chicken within was evolving, growing, developing—changing. From the chicken’s point of view, the moment of breakthrough, of cracking the egg, was simply one more step in a long chain of steps that had led to that moment. Granted, it was a big step—but it was hardly the radical transformation that it looked like from the outside.

It’s a silly analogy, but then our conventional way of looking at change is no less silly. Everyone looks for the “miracle moment” when “change happens.” But ask the good-to-great executives when change happened. They cannot pinpoint a single key event that exemplified their successful transition.

From one perspective, I suppose we should have realized that BSA was always trying to change from within, but beneath that shell we didn’t see what was really going on (or we didn’t want to recognize it).

From another perspective, I look back at 2013 and realize how many phone calls, late night conference calls, web-casts, prayer meetings, times of grief and frustration have been shared by so many men to make Trail Life happen. And of course, if you ask those men, they’ll tell you it wasn’t “them”, but someone else that enabled us to get it started at all (God).

Each of those calls, web casts and meetings was another push against an imaginary flywheel of immense size.  Again from “Good to Great”, Jim Collins explains the “Flywheel Effect”:

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 [organization]. 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.

Flywheel-430x322Right now, the flywheel is at a standstill. To get it moving, you make a tremendous effort. You push with all your might, and finally you get the flywheel to inch forward. After two or three days of sustained effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster. It takes a lot of work, but at last the flywheel makes a second rotation. You keep pushing steadily. It makes three turns, four turns, five, six. With each turn, it moves faster, and then—at some point, you can’’t say exactly when—you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favor. It spins faster and faster, with its own weight propelling it. You aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing.

This is the Flywheel Effect. It’s what it feels like when you’re inside [an organization] that makes the transition from good to great.

Has Trail Life USA made the transition from “Good to Great”?  Probably not yet by the author’s definition, but have we come a long, long way in a short, short time?  Absolutely.  Praise be to God for what He has allowed/enabled us to accomplish.  May we guard this organization carefully and honor Him by continuing to build the momentum with small, but consistent pushes and shoves instead of allowing naysayers and detractors to rob the momentum by applying the brakes.

It’s time to continue to leverage the flywheel by keeping the focus on a few, but important things and by celebrating each small victory to energize volunteers through effective communications plans.

There are a whole host of other great ideas and strategies that could be leveraged by our esteemed board of directors — and I don’t say this as any sort of criticism, but merely as a supportive push against the flywheel as an encourager.  Let’s keep these men (and their families) in our prayers that they would make wise, God-led decisions as we approach January 1st.

Do my best


One thought on “The Flywheel Effect at Trail Life USA

  1. Pingback: Incremental Gains Add Up Over Time | Trail Life Troop 113

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