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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Teams, People and Change: You Can't Push a String

[Also available as a podcast]

When I was younger and preparing to go to University, I received some strange but sage advice. I was told that if you wanted to go into Engineering, the two main things you needed to remember was "E=MC squared, and You can't push a string".

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Then a lateral thinker I know said "if you wet it and freeze it, you can push the string". Needless to say, he went on into Engineering on a path that eventually led to Project Management, while I completed a degree in Computing and came into Project Management from a slightly different direction. 

Of course, the person who provided the sage advice was merely describing the physical limitations of the string and its behavior when force was applied "in the wrong direction". As we  all know, it is much more effective to pull a string in order to move whatever it is attached to.

Unless, apparently, you wet it and freeze it.

Then it would be definitely easier to push it. It might even be harder to pull it, with it being all wet, cold and slippery. You probably would need gloves or some pliers to grab it so you could pull it.

It has been many years since I was told that message, but often the strange or different sticks with you. This advice came back to me most recently when I was contemplating a new project, and refreshing my thoughts about team development, and preparing for change within organizations.

In fact, it is a perfect description of what is NOT part of a successful approach to building a team or managing change. (The string part, not the E-MC squared part. And real string, not any quantum mechanical string theory stuff).

Because when it comes right down to the bare bones of it, People are like strings. Pushing them is rarely effective - but ah, if you can lead them (and pull them along in the same direction), there is no limit to what can be accomplished.

String Theory

Yes, you are a string.  Complex, multi-threaded, multi-faceted, different from everyone else in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, but yes - a string. And not the quantum mechanical variety, though apparently if they are right we are all made up of a lot of those too, billions, trillions of them, who's counting?

But where it counts, people behave an awful lot like string in certain situations.

Don't Push That String

If you push a string, what does it do? It collapses into a muddle of overlapping loops - and whatever it was attached to has not budged an inch. Of course, if you keep pushing until the string is all wadded up against the object, you can push against the object with the mashed-up string, but that is not really the point, is it? If that was all you wanted to do you did not need the string in the first place.

If the string is near a corner or another obstruction, there is a tendency for the string to collapse back into a corner and pile up there. It is also likely to form a knot, making it more difficult to sort out once you stop pushing and go in the "right" direction.

String was not designed to be pushed - and neither are people. And when you push people, they tend to behave like string - they slide to the side, push back into a corner, and generally go in any other direction than the one you are pushing. (Incidentally, this is why I don't like backing up with a trailer). And just like the string, you don't get a very satisfactory result from all of your pushing.

Don't believe me? Just try to push a Teenager into doing something they don't want to do.

So how do we get an object, a person, a team, or an entire organization moving with you in the desired direction, and even working together?

We pull.


You are right in thinking that you will be more effective in pulling than in pushing the string, but there are a number of other things to consider.
  • How much resistance is there?
  • How big is the object we need to move? 
  • How much effort do you need to pull?
  • Where do we want it to go? In what direction? 
  • Do we pull straight ahead, or start at a bit of an angle? 
  • Is it on wheels, skids, or what?
And in our case - it is a person who is attached to the string - maybe the "string" could be their tie, or a string wrapped around their waist. Or perhaps it is tied to a wagon, sled, or pallet. But be nice on where and how you fasten than string, it will likely be your turn to be pulled for something else later on.

Ok, so you are all hitched up, and raring to go. But first let's check on one more thing:
  • Are they ready to be pulled?
There is a psychiatrist version of the light bulb joke that goes like this: "How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer: "Only one, but it has to really want to change."

It's an old joke, but it does help us out in looking at our problem - of trying to get a person (or object) moving in the direction we want them to. They have to be open to the idea of change, and moving - or at the very least, not anchored firmly in place. The worst case would be if they were actively pulling against us, going the opposite direction. And you also have to remember that you are usually trying to get more than one person moving in your direction and working together - in other words, you almost always start out the process outnumbered.


Ok, so you are gung-ho, convinced of the need for everyone to go in a new direction, certain everyone will come along easily with you, because you have a great idea, right? So you pull. Perhaps gently at first, then a bit harder, but nothing is happening. So you pull even harder. Still nothing. So you get impatient, and you jerk the the string quick and hard - surely that will get them moving!

And then - snap! - you have broken the string and you land on your rear end with a surprised look on your face. What happened?

You just exceeded the tensile strength of the string in one impulsive action. Actually it is interesting to note that in physics, impulse is the name of a calculation that combines force with the time interval it is applied over. When force is applied to an object (and the object moves), the momentum of the object changes. If you apply a smaller force for a long period of time, the momentum of the object will eventually reach (X). If, however you apply a stronger force over a short period (like jerking on the string), the momentum of the object will reach (X) more quickly, unless of course you break the string with the effort.The second action has a higher impulse value.

If a string is designed to withstand a steady pulling force of, say, 100 pounds (448 Newtons), you can pull with almost 100 pounds of force applied in a slow and steady motion for an extended period of time. However if you suddenly applied a minute's worth of pulling into one swift motion, the impulsive force applied to the string will vastly exceed the 100 pound threshold limit of allowable steady force, snapping the string.

The same thing happens in reverse with whiplash in car accidents, when the momentum swiftly changes from (X) to zero. If you gradually slow to a stop from 60 mph/100kph over 4-5 seconds, your body slows gradually with the car, and you come to a comfortable stop at the traffic light. If, however, the same net braking force that was needed to stop the vehicle was applied in 1/10 of a second, i.e. during a crash, the vehicle and its contents (including you) undergo extreme impulsive force. And if you survive, you will have a nasty case of whiplash and sore or injured neck.

Ok, so I didn't do the whole Engineering bit. I did enjoy Physics though.

So there you are, flat on your rear with a broken string, and not a little bit embarrassed. Actually most likely a lot embarrassed, with the whole crowd you are trying to pull watching you. A stellar beginning.

Time to regroup and change tactics.

Reduce the Friction

Ok, so we have to take it slow and steady. But the last time we tried, they did not budge an inch. So what do we do? We can get a thicker string, but we can only pull so hard, being just one person.

When you are trying to move a heavy object, there are two main ways to increase the chances of making it move.
  • Increase the force applied
  • Reduce the friction
We already know we are currently limited on the first part - so what can we do to reduce the friction? If it was a large block, you could try pulling it over logs, put it on wheels, or put a lubricant, like water, graphite powder or oil on the surface underneath and in front of it, depending on the material the surface and the object are made from.

But that is assuming the object is just sitting there - what if it is something with roots, like a tree, or an object embedded in the ground? If this is the case, there will need to be some excavating going on, or at least some loosening of the soil around the base. 

We had a very wet winter here, and the ground was quite soggy. We wanted to transplant a couple of small bushes to another spot in the yard, but when we went to dig them up the ground was so soft and muddy, we merely had to pull them out by hand. Ok, probably not a good practice and any gardeners out there are probably shaking their heads - but so far, the bushes are doing ok. 

[Oct 7, 2012 Update: The bushes both died. Maybe they were too big to be transplanted, or they took extreme offense at being uprooted like that. So use a shovel and be careful to keep more roots!]

I am not saying you need to yank anyone out by the roots, just that it is easier to move something that is rooted or stuck in the ground when the ground has been prepared (loosened up) before you start pulling. This is just another form of reducing friction.

When we are dealing with people in a team, or a group of users/stakeholders in the context of a change management plan, we need to look at the current state of affairs - who is entrenched, who is open at least a little bit to the change you want to make. You then need to think about what will help loosen them up and be more open to the idea of change. Even better, if you can identify a few people who support you among their peers (advocates), they can help convince the others to give it a try. The advocates can also help to reduce friction between the project team and those you are trying to move/change, by spreading a positive message. Because in all likelihood, the advocates are trusted by their peers, but the masses may not trust you - yet.

So, with things loosened up a bit and friction gradually reducing, you can again start to pull. It will be slow at first, but you at least have them moving.


And suddenly, you stop. Even worse, the string is pulling you backward. Somebody is playing tug-of-war, and you are outnumbered. You are not on your rear because you bought a stronger string - but you are now moving in the wrong direction.

You need more people at your end of the string, and to possibly bring their own strings. You need the advocates to help pull with you, all the while working to reduce friction and pass along the positive message. If there are only a few people pulling against you, you will still be able to make progress once the advocates are helping you pull. Of course, ideally you will want those digging in or pulling against you to see reason and just "get with the program", but as we well know, often that simply does not happen - and you will have lingering resistance, even when most of the people have accepted the change.

So, you pull together, you and your advocates - and, here and there, others come to the front to join you. And the great thing about that is if they are pulling with you, they are not being dragged, so it is suddenly just that bit easier to pull because you gained a puller, but you also removed a resistor (source of friction), so it is a 2-for-1 bonus.

Pulling your Wagon down the Hill

When my oldest son was only 2 years old, we bought an old Radio Flyer metal wagon at a garage sale. The wheels were plastic and brittle, but the rest of the wagon was still solid - rusty in spots, but I stripped it back to bare metal and painted it up shiny red, with black for the handle and axles (of course). But I replaced the worn out plastic wheels with four good quality steel and rubber wheelbarrow wheels, with exposed ball bearings. I bought a tube of lithium grease and thoroughly lubed the bearings. When it was all finished, we had to chock the wheels because the slightest slope caused it to roll. Today, three kids and many years later, the wagon is still going strong - and although a bit dented from lots of use, it still rolls fairly smoothly.

If you are successful in your efforts to bring people along with you (i.e. leading them), you will reach a point where it no longer feels like you are dragging a heavy block. It will feel like you are pulling a wagon - much easier, with greased wheels and less friction. Which is good, because a lot of your journey has been an uphill climb. But soon enough, the crest of the hill will be in sight, and you will have a significant number of people helping you pull it to the top before jumping back on the wagon for the rest of the ride.

And then - you are over the crest, and what happens next? Do you remember trying to pull your wagon downhill as a child? Once it gets moving, there is a point where you cannot run fast enough and you have to make a choice.
  • Let go and let the wagon race on ahead, and probably crash.
  • Jump onto the wagon, grab the handle and steer to a triumphant finish.
 But you are the Project Manager, so really there is only one choice. Watch for the right moment, and then jump on and grab that handle. Steer that wagon, with all of the team riding with you and cheering you on, all the way to the finish line. Just watch for that bump on the left.


Project String Theory applies not only to organizational change, but to building teams as well.The expected results will be a bit different, of course.  But the mechanics are quite similar.

When you are building a team, trust is paramount, and you won't get very far by pushing. But if you can be an effective leader and work with your team, set the vision and goals and have the team buy into them, you won't be pulling them for very long - they will be blazing the trail in the direction you have set, with you bringing up the rear. They might even call you a slowpoke.

Good luck with your projects, and watch out for knots in your string. If you get any, you probably just forgot the lesson for a moment and did a push instead of a pull.


  1. Gary ... good work, I like the analogy. I even think you could expand on it and increase the relevance. Keep it up ... Iain

  2. Funny. Pushing a string is exactly how it feels to manage teams sometimes. And when management micromanages me, it feel like I'm the string being pushed!

  3. Hey Gary, I loved that part about the string theory. I'm doing a piece right now about the push and pull theory and came across this article. Good stuff!