Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 8;   February 24, 2010: The Power of Situational Momentum

The Power of Situational Momentum

by

For many of us, the typical workday presents a series of opportunities to take action. We often approach these situations by choosing among the expected choices. But usually there are choices that exploit situational momentum, and they can be powerful choices indeed.
The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal

The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal. The final as-built design of the Panama Canal is based on a large lake at an elevation of 85 feet, connected at its ends, respectively, through locks and canals, to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The original design of the canal, conceived by the French, was a sea-level structure without locks. The sea-level design would have required much more excavation, but that was not its only challenge. Its route, indeed, the routes of both designs, crossed the Chagres River, which is subject to seasonal floods owing to the high annual rainfall of the canal's watershed. Annual rainfall averages 101 inches or 2.56 meters (130 inches (3.3 meters) near the Atlantic coast, and 60 inches (1.5 meters) near the Pacific). The French design would have had to deal with these floods. The design that was eventually constructed created a lake by damming the Chagres, and used the captured water to operate the locks. This design used the situational momentum of the terrain to solve an otherwise daunting engineering problem. For more about the canal and it history, see the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Report TP-159, Some History and Hydrology of the Panama Canal. Photo courtesy Beauchamp Tower Corporation.

Opportunities to take action are more common than we realize, because we overlook so many of them. Among the opportunities most overlooked are the opportunities to exploit resources provided by the situation itself. I call these resources situational momentum. Here are three examples of choices that exploit situational momentum.

Dealing with an unfavorable risk/reward ratio
Everyone was quiet. Just as Ellen expected, James was suggesting indirectly that she be the one to deliver the bad news to the department. He didn't use her name, and he didn't even look her way, but obviously, he expected her to volunteer. She didn't want to. She would have become the ogre, and it was James's responsibility anyway.
Instead of volunteering immediately, she waited, and to her great relief, Michael volunteered to deliver the news. Ellen's waiting exploited two resources provided by the situation: the passage of time, and the urges of others in the meeting.
If the mission is unrewarding or risky, leaving space and time for another to take up that mission might relieve you of unwanted and undue responsibility.
Waiting when waiting does no harm
Warren was overloaded. As his deadline approached, Ilsa, his project manager, worried that Warren would be late with his deliverable. She considered approaching Warren's supervisor, to express her concerns.
But there was slack in the schedule, so she decided to wait and see. Sure enough, Warren was late. When Ilsa did meet with Warren's supervisor, instead of expressing worry over what might happen, Ilsa could put forward hard evidence of Warren's overloading. Ilsa had waited for the situation to produce actual evidence.
When you can wait, events can sometimes erase worries, or convert worries into evidence, saving you from needless anxiety.
Avoiding a public tiff
The meeting If the mission is unrewarding
or risky, leaving space and
time for another to take up
that mission might relieve you
of the responsibility
was running late, but Marcus didn't care. He began relating something he'd heard from Tamra in Marketing: users found David's documentation confusing and inadequate. Marcus droned on, hinting indirectly that for the next release, David should be replaced.
David silently steamed. For that last release, Marcus had argued that David should shift his attention to something Marcus thought more important than the documentation he was complaining about now. But David kept still, and when Marcus finished, David said, "Hmm, next time you see Tamra, ask her to drop me a note. I'd like to hear more."
Instead of engaging with Marcus in a public tiff, David gave Marcus an action item — one he was compelled to accept because of his professed concern about quality. Eventually, Marcus might learn to convey these kinds of concerns to David privately before bringing them to public attention.

Watch closely the politically sophisticated people in your work life. Be alert to their use of situational momentum. A collection of their tactics can be a handy resource. Go to top Top  Next issue: What Is Workplace Bullying?  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

The concept of using situational momentum is closely related to the approach based on Aiki, and explained in many sources, including The Magic of Conflict, by Thomas Crum (Order from Amazon.com). Using situational momentum is similar to what Crum calls cocreation.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

"Taking an observation at the pole."The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager
The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential conflicts of interest.
The Japanese battleship Yamato during machinery trials 20 October 1941Durable Agreements
People at work often make agreements in which they commit to cooperate — to share resources, to assist each other, or not to harm each other. Some agreements work. Some don't. What makes agreements durable?
Children playing a computer gameHigh Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid.
A hospital patientCongruent Decision Making: II
Decision makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make decisions that don't fit the reality of their organizations. Here's Part II of a framework for making decisions that fit.
A U.S. 100-dollar bill made into a jigsaw puzzleFacts, Opinions, Estimates, and Desires
One reason why resource allocation debates can become so difficult is confusion about the differences among facts, opinions, estimates, and desires. Clarifying their differences can reduce the length and intensity of resource allocation debates.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.