I have loved Jim Collins idea of the “flywheel effect” in terms of startup community building for years. The concept makes so much sense especially if you believe in startup communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems as complex systems. The two go hand in hand like peas and carrots.

I have very richly detailed dreams. I have all of my life. Sometimes I love them and sometimes vivid dreams night after night can get exhausting. Last week I had a dream about the flywheel effect and whether it can be measured. In my mind I was debating whether e = m c² (e = energy and m = mass and c² = speed of light) or p = m v (momentum = p and m = mass and v = velocity). The funny thing is I got a D in physics in high school so I have no idea where these came from. I seriously woke up laughing.

Flywheel is a term that describes the momentum that occurs when small wins accumulate over time, creating continued growth and improvement. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, eventually generating power and momentum. I have shared many times in this blog and my books that momentum is your best friend.

I attended a summit of university research hubs last week and listened to many who have been charged with creating, augmenting or accelerating their institutions goals. They have a huge challenge ahead of them. My observation after listening to table discussions was that many are looking for that one tactic or element they need to get correct. That is the opposite of the flywheel effect. I call it the silver bullet strategy. I feel very strongly that there is never one thing you need to do to be successful as an ecosystem builder. 

At the end of the day, I did a brief summary for the audience in what I had heard and observed from them during the day:

  • They are desperate for best practices (there is no playbook and every institution is different)
  • They understand the need to build collaboration into their strategy but are seeking the “how”
  • They received lots of ideas and feedback and will now have to go process all of the information and turn them into individual actions (sounds like every startup founder I know).

In hindsight, I wish I had introduced the idea of the flywheel effect. I wish that I had provided them a north star that simply outlined that consistent and strategic efforts, applied over time, can create a powerful force that propels their business forward.

It is so hard to get that flywheel turning at first. The mass is huge (think about working across many institutional departments as in a large university). Creating velocity takes a lot of effort and there are headwinds as well.

But I also know that many small wins, no matter how inconsequential they may seem at the time) somehow start to turn that flywheel which in turn starts to create more small wins which in turn eventually leads to breakthrough innovation.