Steve Fenton

The pitch drop experiment learning metaphor

Pitch Drop ExperimentProfessor John Mainstone has been spending a great deal of time watching a slowly forming droplet of pitch, in an experiment started by Professor Thomas Parnell in 1927 to study the substance. The pitch was actually given three years to settle before the study started in 1930, but in the following 83 years there were a whopping nine drops (including those drops that occurred inconveniently while Professor Mainstone was away). That is about one drop every nine years.

It struck me today how well this describes teams of people. (Sometimes you have to bear with me on these things).

If you learn at a faster pace compared to your team as a whole, you start to stretch the team. These tension runs two ways. Partly, you are pulling some of the team along. Partly, the team is holding you back.

The dangers are that you will be held back too much and may even come to accept it, or that you will resist being held back, which can cause more tension. Perhaps you will even be the drop of pitch that breaks away and falls – unable to drag others along with you.

To some extent I would rather be the droplet that falls, rather than be held back, but this in itself can be a potential risk. If you are dropping not because you have leapt ahead, but because you just can’t effectively adapt your style of communication, you could have trouble long-term dealing with others – this is the meta-effect when you transcend your human form and can no longer hear or communicate with mortal beings.

So the pitch drop experiment illustrates the tensions within groups of people who all bring different contexts and experiences. Try to stretch people along with you and be willing to compromise a little – but if you are genuinely being held back, let go and find a new tar pit.

Pitch drop experiment image by John Mainstone (license) via Wikimedia Commons.

Written by Steve Fenton on