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can digital health scale?

“We worked on a digital health project that was moving at lightning speed with a small team, and at some point, we shared it with the rest of the organization. That’s when it died”

This Pharma exec pinpointed such a critical and sensitive point along the journey of trying to take a smaller (often more experimental) corporate project from infancy to broader adoption and scale.

And while it’s definitely a multifaceted challenge, this particular conversation made me think of the Ringelmann Effect.

Heard of it?

Max Ringelmann was a French agricultural engineer who, in 1913, took a rope and asked individual people to pull on it while he measured the force exerted.

He then asked a group of people to pull the rope together and discovered that as a group, they put much less effort, per person, than when individually pulling on the rope.

Hence the Ringelmann Effect (aka “social loafing”)…

Ever clapped more softly in a crowd? Contributed less to a brainstorming session when there were bigger groups involved? Stayed silent on a call after the presenter asked if there were any questions?

Essentially, the bigger the group, the harder it is to evaluate individual performance and hold people accountable for results.

And the less ownership of a project, the less motivation there is to get it done.

Add to that comfortable corporate salaries, bonuses and vesting of stocks over time (e.g., ‘rest-and-vest’) and there’s a real potential for the Ringelmann Effect to impact an entire company’s productivity and appetite for newer, riskier initiatives.

Now obviously corporate work is not exactly rope-pulling (although some days it might feel like it) and there are other dynamics at play when projects don’t work out, but a few pointers I’ve seen work to somewhat dampen our friend Ringelmann:

🙌 Ensure everyone on the team believes in the real business, financial and career impact of successfully completing the project

🤚 Just say NO to larger, matrix-type steering committees and project teams, at least initially

🔄 Work in an agile, sprint-like fashion (versus using multi-month project plans) to test a hypothesis – this way the team gets a sense of ownership for the various iterations and accomplishes demonstrable wins when it’s time to share more broadly

🔦 Hold people accountable and build transparency to make each person’s contribution known along the way (aka social facilitation)

🤝 Involve a senior executive sponsor in key decisions along the way (don’t just provide them with updates) – they too will need a sense of ownership as they’ll eventually need to advocate for the project when it comes time to get broader buy-in

So next time you find yourself in a corporate game of tug-of-war, Squid Game it (S1, E4), and pull for your life 🔺

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