Understanding the Equal and Opposite Reaction

Understanding the Equal and Opposite Reaction

In prior articles, I discussed how one could apply the principles of Newton’s First and Second Laws of motion to their duties as a Product Manager. Here, we close the series by examining Newton’s Third Law — that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The fact is, this law applies as much to social interactions and leading through influence as it does to interactions in the physical world.

The Third Law basically states that when one thing exerts force on another, the object of that force exerts the same amount of force in return — when sitting in a chair, for example, our bodies exert downward force on the chair, and the chair exerts upward force on us, reaching a point of equilibrium that we call “sitting”.  Similarly, when you are working with people and attempting to exert some level of influence to move a project forward, you are likely to encounter an equal and opposite exertion of force back upon you.

Understand When You’re Exerting “Force”

The Third Law only applies when one object is exerting force on another.  An object at rest provokes no reactionary force; an object moving in space on its own provokes no reactionary force.  It is only when one object acts upon another that the Third Law is triggered.  Similarly, when a Product Manager is moving with the flow of the business, or when they are acting on their own, they are not triggering a reactionary response.  Only when we attempt to change the course of the business, of a project, or in attempts to leverage others’ influence that we can predict that there will be some reactionary response.

The other important component of the Third Law as applied to Product Management is that the reactionary force is equal to the force exerted — this means that, when we encounter a situation where we must exert “force” on someone, we can expect that they will push back as hard as we push them.  Thus, we should be ever mindful to begin pushing with the least amount of force necessary to achieve our goals, and only escalate that force when it’s needed.  If we start out by exerting a large amount of force, we should expect a large amount of reactionary force in return.

Assess What the Opposite Force Is

Opposing force in the world of Product Management can take a wide variety of forms — everything from active resistance, to passive aggressive behavior, to sabotage behind the scenes.  As Product Managers, we need to be aware of the various ways in which opposing force is applied, and to create coping strategies to address each one.  We also need to understand which people against whom we need to push are most likely to react in what way to that pressure.

It’s also important to realize that this opposing force is not always a negative — it often provides us with opportunities to engage in quid pro quo with our stakeholders, which not only achieves the goals that both we and the stakeholders want, but also serves to build our social capital within the organization.

Redirection and Equilibrium

The best outcome of any situation involving a Third Law situation is to reach a state of equilibrium.  For example, if in our first example the chair exerts too much force upward, we cannot sit; if we exert too much force downward, the chair will break.  By reaching a point of equilibrium, of equal forces exerted against each other, we manage to balance out the two forces and we can then move forward.  By understanding when we are exerting force, mitigating the amount of force that we start out with, and assessing the opposing force from our stakeholders, we can identify what that state looks like and make our best efforts to reach that middle ground.

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