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

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.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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