From Merry-Go-Rounds to Flywheels: How Los Ranchos is Going from “Good to Great”

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 7.39.36 AMBack in the day, almost every park had a spinning platform called a “merry-go-round.” The object was to get the platform spinning as fast as you could by running alongside it while holding a bar that separated its slots. Then, in one courageous move, you would jump onto the platform and feel the forces of physics take over. If you were really bold, you might attempt one of your favorite moves, like holding on one-handed or hanging on by just your legs. Those were the days!

For the sake of lowering the incidence of childhood head trauma, however, merry-go-rounds have largely disappeared. With them, too, has disappeared a practical way for children to learn physics. Although I’m not a science wiz, I found the merry-go-round to be a great place to learn concepts like inertia, centrifugal force, momentum, and, after falling a few times, gravity.

But more important than the physics lessons, were the social lessons I learned. Of course, there was the lesson of “teamwork.” The more friends you had pushing, the faster it would spin and the more fun you would have. It also took “synchronization;” one had to time when you jumped on and off the platform so as not to step on anyone, as well as to give each other rests when someone became too tired to push anymore. After all, a spinning merry-go-round is a fun merry-go-round!

I wouldn’t have guessed then that the lesson of the merry-go-round would translate all these years later into one of the most popular metaphors for organizational excellence. In his bestselling book Good to Great, business guru Jim Collins writes about “the flywheel effect,” which is basically a grown up version of the merry-go-round.

image001In his book, the flywheel isn’t a park toy, but an enormous disk that weighs upward of 5,000 pounds. To get it moving requires any number of people to push in the same direction, not once or three times but hundreds of times.

The inertia that has to be overcome is so heavy it takes multiple pushes by a whole bunch of people to get it going. Then, at some point, Collins describes, “its own heavy weight begins working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but … each turn of the flywheel builds upon the work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge disk flies forward with almost unstoppable momentum.”

In other words, the flywheel takes on a life of its own!

When I think about where we are as a presbytery, it is hard for me not to think of Collin’s flywheel. We have this powerful vision statement about who we are becoming—“a community of flourishing congregations that joyfully participate in God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ in the world.” And we have clear strategies for how we will achieve it (“Revised Mission Plan”), namely, to excel in the art of neighboring, the art of starting new churches, and the art of living joyfully together in a diverse community (“Strategies in Plain Language”).

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Photo be Erin Dunigan

From where I sit, I can see a multitude of hands pushing in the same direction, aligning resources to get the flywheel moving. Congregational leaders are reaching out to each other to learn ways of becoming better neighbors. Our Cyclical Search Team is seeking an Associate Director to spearhead our church-starting efforts. And our Presbytery Gathering Team is designing our quarterly gatherings based on the themes of our vision and strategies. It’s not one big push, it’s a thousand little pushes in the same direction.

That’s how you get the flywheel turning. And that’s how organizations like ours go from “good to great.” Some pushes may be bigger than others, but any single heave reflects only a small fraction of the entire cumulative effect upon the flywheel.

I realize that businesses are not presbyteries, but I think Collin’s flywheel translates seamlessly to the work we’re doing right now. Indeed, I could find fewer words more descriptive of our season than when he writes, “Good to great comes about by a cumulative process—step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel—that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.”

I’m still a little peeved that merry-go-rounds have disappeared in playgrounds, but I’m learning that being part of a great presbytery is way more fun!

6 Responses to From Merry-Go-Rounds to Flywheels: How Los Ranchos is Going from “Good to Great”

  1. Bill says:

    I think you are seriously mistaken about how flywheels work. They do not “take on a life of their own”.
    They do not “compound your investment of effort” like an interest-bearing savings account compounds your investment. The reason is that flywheels give back exactly as much energy as you put in, not a single bit more, just like a bank account that pays no interest. Flywheels store energy, just like a 0% bank account stores funds. In physics, energy is conserved. You get back exactly what you put in, nothing more.

  2. Tom Cramer says:

    Dear Bill,
    Thanks for reading my article. As I mentioned, I’m no science wiz, but thankfully, I do know something about focus, team building and momentum. I jumped on and off a spinning merry-go-round many times, feeling the wind on my face and the sheer joy of doing something fun with friends. I loved that it would keep spinning even after we’d step off it for a while. It took so much less energy to get it whirling again because it was already moving. In that sense it took on a life of its own. I hope the lack of technical accuracy didn’t distract you from Collin’s and my main point (it was Collin’s observation I was quoting): it takes the effort of many people pushing in the same direction over time to produce sustained and spectacular results. Blessings, Tom

    • Bill says:

      I still don’t get it.

      If you’re simply talking about momentum, you can use much more common metaphors involving straight travel, such as a car or bicycle. It takes more work to get a car from stopped to 60mph than from 30mph to 60mph. If you take your foot off the gas at 60mph, you can coast for a while, as friction gradually slows you down. Is that all you’re saying?

      But there is a big difference between cars and presbyteries. All the seats on a car go at the same speed, just like all the riders on the outside of a merry-go-round. So pushing a car improves the speed for all riders.

      In contrast, the components of a presbytery are much more loosely connected than the rigidly attached components of a car or merry-go-round. If you sing well, you can join the choir in your congregation, and be a blessing to that congregation, but it won’t be much of a blessing to people in other congregations because your voice simply doesn’t travel that far.

      I’m not sure I get your notion of all pushing in the same direction. In the presbytery we have deep-seated theological differences, causing us to push in different directions. Are you suggesting we should get some to stop pushing backward by making it easy for them to leave?

      • Tom Cramer says:

        Hi Bill,

        Thanks for following our blog. You are right; I could use any number of metaphors for the Church and her councils (e.g., Bride of Christ, Temple, house, etc.), but I thought I would reflect on Collin’s flywheel. It not only resonated with millions of readers but also illustrates (at least to many) how organizational change takes a long ramp up and the effort of everyone in the organization. That’s how I see our presbytery’s rollout of the Revised Mission Plan for June 2016-May 2018. It feels like it is taking a long time, but it is gaining momentum that is going to give life to many. There are many individuals, committees and teams that are working hard to achieve the vision right now, and I want to encourage them that the momentum they are building is worth it.

        Regarding your comments about deep-seated theological differences, you are actually naming strategy #3 of the Revised Mission Plan, which I hope you’ve read: “Collaborate effectively within a wider community of ethnic, linguistic, and theological diversity.” Ministering with our differences in love and peace while promoting the “great ends of the church” seems like a faithful way to live.

        I don’t understand your comment about “making it easy for people to leave” in light of my article. I thought I was writing about the focus, energy, and persistence required to build momentum in a God-honoring direction. I hope everyone knows that they are invited, welcomed, and loved here, and that this is a great community to explore their faith.

        Blessings,

        Tom

        • Bill says:

          Tom,
          I don’t think I made my point clear enough regarding alternate metaphors. As I’m sure you know, the purpose of using a metaphor or analogy is to explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. So if you are trying to make a point about momentum, you would want to use a momentum metaphor that is familiar, such as a car or bicycle that can coast for a while due to its momentum. If you use a relatively unfamiliar metaphor like flywheels, then the reader simply has to take your word that a flywheel has magical properties like compounding the energy you put into it. But it is clear from your description: “[a flywheel is] so heavy it takes multiple pushes by a whole bunch of people to get it going.” that you have never seen a flywheel, because they aren’t the sort of thing that are pushed by a whole bunch of people. And flywheels don’t actually have magical properties of compounding energy input that you claim.

          You write: “There are many individuals, committees and teams that are working hard to achieve the vision right now.” Yes there many individuals, committees and teams pushing in one direction. But there are also many pushing in another direction, in light of the theological diversity in our denomination. So do you propose to revel in the diversity of having people pushing in different directions, or do you propose marginalizing those pushing backwards by keeping them off of committees, for example, or do you propose making it easy for the ones pushing backwards to leave?

          • Tom cramer says:

            Bill,

            I don’t think I made my point clear enough. I was using Collin’s metaphor that spoke to millions of readers. That it doesn’t work for you shows how different readers are. This is the last comment I will make on your critique of Collin’s choice of metaphors. No need for posting addition material on this point.

            Regarding the way you frame theological diversity, “people pushing in opposing directions when they think differently from each other,” rather than learning from each other and seeking a deeper understanding than they originally possessed, makes me wonder how you propose anyone learns or grows in any endeavor? Doesn’t growth involve letting go of former understandings or practices or points of view to grasp new ones? Isn’t life a progression in which we see things increasingly clearly that “we once saw in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13)?

            Regarding your questions about a persons’ place of service in our presbytery, my understanding is that the Nominating Committee seeks to find the best place of service for each person according to their passion, spiritual gifts, temperament, character, teach-ability, understanding of role, ability to work effectively with others, and, where required, theological expertise. Are you proposing that the Nominating Committee does otherwise? If so, give me a call and let’s see if we can make things better.

            Tom

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