Activation Energy

I learned about the term “activation energy” in the Farnham Street newsletter. It’s one of those terms that I recognized instantly when I saw it because I have frequently seen it in the wild — as either a part of a successful planning process or, more likely, something unexpected or for which a group was underprepared. “That’s what it’s called,” I said.

Activation Energy (AE), as I understand it, is the effort and work and time and muscle and hustle — energy! — it takes to set in motion something substantial. It’s drives the launch of an endeavor, project, community, initiative, etcetera.

Ideally, if you handle the AE part of your planning well, you can reduce your energy investment afterwards. Some momentum will live on in the system.

Also if you plan your AE well, you’ll have a chance of recovering after knowingly throwing yourself, your team, and your systems out of balance.

Planning, let’s say, the first few weeks of a school year or the beginning of a specific project that will ask a team to juggle ordinary work and extra-ordinary work is helpful — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. You can prepare mentally for it. You can frame communication around it. You can work it into your leadership storytelling — i.e., AE is tough, but it has a beginning and an end; here’s an example of where I’ve seen this done well; here’s how it may feel. You can explain to your family or friends that you may have to put in a few long days or even a weekend, that you may be less available to them, that you may be tired or even frustrated.

I’m saying all of this because expending AE should be a choice, is something you can manage, and shouldn’t be something that sneaks up on you, or worse, a team for which you’re responsible.

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