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Are You Creating Forward Motion Or Stop Energy?

Buffer is now the largest team I’ve ever worked with.

This time last year there were 29 people on the team. Today there are more than 80.

Hyper-growth mode is both exciting and scary because it means a new chapter and challenges. One thing that’s been on my mind is how can we keep our startup mindset as we keep growing.

I have been seeking advice from a few people I look up to, and last September I chatted with Greg Brockman, who was the CTO at Stripe when they were growing fast.

I asked him how Stripe was able to keep their focus on delivering on many different fronts such as the product, blogging, research and open source as they grew.

Greg pointed me to the concept of “Stop Energy,” introduced by David Winer in 2002. Ever since reading his post, I’ve been finding myself talking a lot about Stop Energy and how it relates to a growing startup like Buffer.

Why it’s easier to get stuff done on a small team

When you’re a small team, there’s a lot of  overlap and trust.

When making decisions, there are fewer people to seek advice from, and fewer people who are affected by those decisions. The feedback loops are quicker, and it’s easier to get on the same page.

This makes it generally easier to get things done.

As we’ve grown, each decision affects larger amounts of people and things that used to be much easier are now suddenly harder—sometimes rightfully so.

To keep up, we’ve experimented a lot with structure to solve these growth challenges.

I can’t say we’ve figured everything out, but being mindful of Stop Energy has allowed me to navigate some of the challenges of making decisions with more people on board.

Defining “Forward Motion’ and ‘Stop Energy’

At Buffer, the thing that keeps us moving forward is a general bias towards action. This is an explicit sub-bullet point in our “Be a No-Ego Doer” value.

new no ego doer

Dave Winer calls this “Forward Motion.” Generally, anyone with an idea they want to try is creating Forward Motion. The process of ideas turning into action and then accomplishments is Forward Motion.

Forward Motion is essentially the reason why work is fun.

Everything that we accomplish as a team is represented through Forward Motion. In my view, any idea proposed by a teammate should by default be considered a good idea, because in their shoes, with all the context they have, they believe it’s a good idea—and it takes a lot of courage to propose an idea!

And yet when a person seeks advice about an idea, depending on their position on the team, how early the idea is, and how many people they seek advice from, they are likely to receive some Stop Energy.

Stop Energy is the opposing force of Forward Motion — it is essentially advice that slows down the progress of Forward Motion. It’s often unreasoned, or provided without full context.

Stop Energy is essentially saying “that won’t work,” without providing alternatives or reasoning that’s accepted by both the advice-seeker and advice-giver.

I think a pervasiveness of Stop Energy is one reason a work environment can become less fun.

forward vs stop

Stop Energy in action at the DMV

For am example of stop energy in action, let’s consider the widely held view that going to the DMV isn’t very fun.

When you’re 16, you go into your first experience at the DMV super excited  because soon you’ll be able to drive for the first time.

Your 16 year-old-self going into a DMV represents Forward Motion because you have this idea you want to drive and are excited to accomplish the feat of obtaining your license.

Immediately you may start to realize there are many barriers and hurdles at the DMV, like queue times, forms, tests, etc. With so many hurdles to getting something done, the experience eventually becomes a lot less fun.

What Stop Energy might look like at work

Similarly if there are many hurdles and moments of Stop Energy in the critical path of getting something done within any organization, the experience breaks down and becomes less fun.

I think Stop Energy at work probably comes in many forms; here are a few I can think of:

  • Leaving a meeting with less excitement than you started with
  • Unnecessary processes (several code reviews, paperwork, tests)
  • Delays when asking for timely advice
  • Many people dependencies to accomplish a task
  • Lack of defined team scope and/or decision makers
  • Lack of clear vision or objectives

Saying ‘no’ isn’t always Stop Energy

It’s important to note that saying “no” doesn’t always mean you’re creating Stop Energy.

I don’t believe that saying some version of ‘This won’t work’” is inherently a bad thing. Saying no can be great, as it ensures focus.

In my interpretation, “no” is Stop Energy only when:

  • the “no” isn’t fully reasoned
  • the reasons aren’t fully agreed upon by both the advice giver and seeker
  • you don’t help the advice seeker find viable alternatives

If something feels like it isn’t the best idea, I try my hardest to work with the person to come up with alternative routes so they can still move forward.

stop energy

How Stop Energy spreads throughout a team

The potential of Stop Energy increases with the number of people from whom advice is sought, and it’s more likely to be seen by newcomers than those that have been on the team for a while.

For example: Let’s say Molly joined the team two weeks ago. She has an idea and wants to try it out. From all the context she has, she believes this is a good idea.

Molly seeks advice from Angela, who has been on the team longer. Angela says her idea won’t work—without giving more context, reasoning, or alternatives for Molly to try out. Molly got Stop Energy from Angela.

A few weeks later Ali joins the team and has another idea. It’s likely Ali will see Stop Energy from Molly because she experienced the same thing with Angela.

Stop Energy can quickly propagate and spread throughout a team.

When Molly has a second idea, she may find it better for her to avoid seeking advice from Angela again. This isn’t at all ideal, since working with Angela was probably the best path for Molly to move forward.

To halt Stop Energy, provide feedback on it

What’s best for everyone is for Molly to provide feedback to Angela so that she’s able to understand the far-reaching effects of Stop Energy.

Greg said that Stripe had a strong culture of providing feedback whenever a teammate sensed Stop Energy. He mentioned that Stripe team members might say, “I felt like I received Stop Energy here.”

I think this is key to prevent Stop Energy propagation across teams and the organization. Being so mindful of this might help a bias towards action scale, even with large teams.

My new advice process: No Stop Energy

Discovering the concept of ‘Stop Energy’ has been pivotal for me.

Suddenly it made sense to me why many times in the past I have pushed forward on ideas on my own, not telling many people about them until I had something tangible to show.

For example, I would come back after a week or two of playing around with a new service or idea, then implement it and get it to a point where I could demo it. I’d then seek the bare minimum of advice from the right people before moving forward.

I realized I was doing this (completely subconsciously) because I knew seeking advice too early isn’t fair to the advice-givers. They don’t have full context to provide accurate advice — and when someone doesn’t have full context to provide accurate advice, the default is to say no.

Now I’m in a privileged position where many team members often come to me for advice. And as an advice giver, I try to be mindful of whether I have full context. If I don’t, I try my hardest to say so, allowing the advice seeker a route to push forward, even if I might disagree with it with my limited context.

And now that I fully understand Stop Energy, I want to make sure I’m not contributing it.

A personal objective of mine is to approach every meeting with a goal of leaving more excited rather than less excited.

This is possibly a naive but perhaps accurate gauge of Forward Motion vs Stop Energy. It means I try my hardest not to say no without proposing equally exciting alternative, or I refrain from commenting if I’m not sure about the best path, and instead recommend someone who might be more helpful.

forward motion

Which are you giving?

Since learning about Stop Energy, I can’t remember the last time I’ve said “Nope, this won’t work,” or “I don’t think that’s a good idea” and left it at that.

The next time you find yourself in an advice-giving position, do an experiment and reflect on whether you’re adding Stop Energy or Forward Motion.

Have you experienced Stop Energy before? How did it feel, and how did you deal with it? I’m keen to hear all your thoughts in the comments!

  • What an interesting idea! I have never heard of stop energy before but it makes a lot of sense, and I can’t definitely relate to feeling less excited after a meeting. I hope this helps Buffer as it continues to grow, I will certainly be trying to apply it in my own life.

    • sunils34

      Thanks Liza!

  • Rayfil Wong

    Very insightful. Thanks Sunil. “Forward motion” creates positive momentum. How do you suggest CEO’s of larger traditional institutions such as banking known to be less disruptive adopt this paradigm shift from the top down.

    • sunils34

      That’s such a great question and not sure if I have a validated solution to it. My hunch would be simply recognizing and talking about ‘Stop Energy’ is a first major step. I think a key challenge orgs may have is simply not recognizing why things move slower. I’d imagine if a bank has it in it’s culture to recognize Stop Energy, that would be a huge step… it would require the awareness of several teammates to recognize it, and talk about it’s effects and give feedback on it. My hope here was to bring awareness to our team on it, now teammates can give feedback to each other on their experiences of Stop Energy :).

  • LeeAndra Fouts

    I had never heard of stop energy before this post but it’s definitely feeling like the perfect term for my last job. Thanks for giving me a fresh perspective on that experience as well as a new lens for the future! :)

    • sunils34

      Awesome LeeAndra! Excited to have this perspective myself on gauging how fun and productive a team can be.

  • Marissa

    This makes so much sense and I love having a way to describe and talk about it now. I would be interested in looking at the typical demographics of stop energy. For example, do people who have been with an organization longer tend to place more stop energy than those who are newer? Is there a difference between age/generation?

    • sunils34

      That’s such a great idea Marissa! Fully agree, I think we would learn a lot segmenting out different areas of Stop Energy as it relates to different demographics and teams.

      • Marissa

        Definitely. It would really help finding and addressing the origins of Stop Energy also. For example, if you discovered that most Stop Energy was coming from people who had been at the company for 1+ years, that may indicate something about the company or operations is making employees feel unsuccessful. What a great opportunity for change!

    • Sunil’s done an excellent job at identifying and classifying an observed phenomenon. In my humble experience, I’ve noticed that those who have been with the organisation longer with fewer development opportunities tend to get very comfortable with the status quo and hence oppose forward progress more strongly, relying on their knowledge of the organisation and systems and processes to create stop energy. In terms of age / generation it’s a mixed bag. I’ve seen seasoned professionals and leaders always ready to try something new or different because other means haven’t worked and then there are youngsters who due to sheer lack of knowledge and empowerment tend to shy away from what could have been a breakthrough.

      Sunil, have you observed broadly similar trends?

  • Daniel Jomphe

    About Forward Motion, Sunil, I think you’d love to read the Progress Principle – a solid business book based on a very sound study. I read the book at a time when I felt paralyzed by too much of external Stop Energy. It helped me propel myself back into productive work, and to talk about the Stop Energy issues we had, asking to stop that – which happened and helped a great deal.

    • sunils34

      Wow great recommendation Daniel! Will def take a read, seems very similar and perhaps the same base principle to Stop Energy.

  • Job Ben

    I learned something today.

  • Keli’i

    This hits it on the head. Something was off at work recently and this is it.
    And it’s true, stop energy can spread to you if you’re not careful.

    Gonna have to take action on Monday to turn things around.

    Thanks for the insight!

  • Bobbie Jo Ward

    Say you are receiving a lot of stop energy, not by having ideas shot down, but lack of vision, too many dependencies on others in order to complete task, delay in advice, etc… What would be some good ways to communicate the need for Forward Motion coming from someone receiving Stop Energy?

  • Neil McKay

    Excellent post!

    I can see Stop Energy at work in more than one organization with which I’m involved. “We’ve already tried that and it didn’t work.” is a phrase I’ve heard countless times. Truth be told, I may be guilty of having said it once or twice.

    I love the goal of leaving every meeting more excited than when you first got there.

  • Dominik BrĂźnner

    Great and so helpful to know. Thank you! It reminds me of the principals of improvisation in acting, where it’s said as “a ‘no’ stops the play – to keep it moving, better say ‘yes, and…'”

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