Buckminster Fuller, author of the ground-breaking book “Critical Path” inspired many people. He was the person who created the term “Spaceship Earth” and invented the geodesic dome, among many other things. One of his most potent concepts was when he reflected on trim tabs. Airplanes and ships use trim tabs to help move their control surfaces (flaps and rudders). They are attached to a large control surface which would otherwise be difficult to move. They look like flaps on the flaps of airplanes.
Bucky once said:
Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary. The whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.
It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.
So I said, “call me Trim Tab.”
Bucky suggests that trim tabs are not just highly leverage-able things. Instead, they work by changing the environment where a highly leverage-able thing works. This change to the environment is why trim tabs are so important. In the rudder example, the trim tab enables the rudder to work much better by changing the rudder’s environment.
Trim Tabs and coaching
Coaching is not simply going after low-hanging fruit, improving what is evident and easy; you must attend to how one thing sets up another. As people learn some practices, it sets them up to understand others. It is also essential to pay attention to the leverage that a practice can exert on the environment. A simple technique can massively improve how people work. In software development, Acceptance Test-Driven Development is a relatively simple example that dramatically impacts the way people work.
Coaching simple things that set up more lessons, teaching them “what they almost already know,” and focusing on practices that can improve the environment – can significantly improve how you coach a transition.
Some Trim Tabs In Knowledge Work
The following are trimtabs in knowledge work:
- MBIs are trimtabs since they provide alignment across an organization
- Creating visibility of work and workflow is a trimtab since everyone can align around the work and better collaborate.
- Managing work in process is a trimtab since it makes the environment better by not overloading people
- Attending to testability when code is developed solves all sorts of problems and has people collaborate better
- Having a development intake process is a trimtab because it lets everyone see what’s about to be worked on
- Asking “how will I know I’ve done that?” when a requirement is presented improves the collaboration between devs and product owners.
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