The Elastic Effect


Working in a team to achieve a common goal is something that most of us are looking for and we get lots of energy and purpose out of it. But sometimes things are the other way around. And here comes the elastic effect*: it describes the relative distance between each team’s member. As a general rule more stretched the elastic is, more chances are that there are some problems related to the member-team-goal dynamic.

How does it work? When all members of a team pull in the same direction there is no tension in the elastic. The elastic starts to stretch and becomes thinner and thinner when team members pull in different directions and/or with different intensity.

When this happens you can sense that team’s goal is so close to reach it and yet far enough that you can’t grab it. Or, in worst case scenarios, it moves farther and farther away.

So what you can do when you feel that the elastic is getting too thin? It comes down to one the following actions.

Get out of the team, move on. This is a pretty drastic solution but sometimes it is the only way out. This is probably what many people have done at RIM or Nokia when the things weren’t going in the right direction despite all their best effort. While it is not easy to get out, with each passing day you lose something. Spend too much time and you are not the same anymore. Welcome to zombie land.

Second option is to pull out the Jeanne d’Arc stunt. You identified the root cause of the problem and you think you can fix it. You apply yourself and try to change things so the team gets back on track. Not everyone has the belief and energy to do this but it should be something that you try at least once in your professional life. If nothing else you’d get a better understanding of how hard/easy is to change the momentum of a team even when “the right path” is crystal clear.

The third option is to reduce the stretch in the elastic by working more on strategic things and less on tactical ones. Most strategic tasks tend to take lot of time and you can spread them out during a year. With the tactical ones you do lots of them each week and if they don’t have the impact you hope for it is easy to get frustrated. With this approach you essentially buy time and hope that root cause of the problem will be taking care of.

If you don’t do anything, the elastic will keep stretching until it breaks: you feel that the work you do is meaningless and you stop giving a ****. A mere rock has more impact on the world. You envy the freaking rocks with a vengeance.

* I didn’t come up with the term. I wish I had. It comes from a good friend
** I’m using the term team but it can be something bigger than a team: a group, a company, even a country

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