I apologize for the rerun this week, but this one is somewhat intentional. I’m giving a keynote today at a virtual conference on online teaching in K-12 schools and I draw on the concept of “being a trim tab” at the end of the presentation. The “trim tab” concept remains as one my favorite metaphors for modeling the behavior we want to see in others and in our institutions. Enjoy!
It’s hard to turn an ocean liner. By anyone’s definition, an ocean liner isn’t a particularly agile vessel. Displacing millions and millions of gallons of water, ocean liners are massive and awkward. They lumber through the water, barreling along on their predetermined paths undeterred by slight fluctuations in the ocean. But ocean liners do turn. They navigate successfully to dock at ports and to dodge the occasional iceberg. While they aren’t as agile as a speed boat, ocean liners change directions. It takes more time but ocean liners can be turned.
Most people would credit an ocean liner’s ability to change direction to the ship’s rudder. Not surprisingly, the rudder of an ocean is itself a massive object, standing stories and stories tall for larger vessels. But what turns the rudder? The easy explanation is that a steering wheel turns the rudder and the rudder changes the direction of the ship. Closer examination, however, reveals the structure and function of a much smaller and less well-known object: the trim tab. Simply put, a trim tab is small rudder connected to the larger rudder. Turning the steering wheel turns the trim tab, which builds the pressure to make the larger rudder move. It’s the trim tab that does the work. Though tiny in comparison to the larger rudder and to the ocean liner as a whole, the trim tab is the one that’s doing all of the work. The tiny trim tab deserves much of the credit in the changes in direction that an ocean liner experiences.
Lately, many people have come to expect big changes and disruptions organizationally and societally. They want to see programs and systems quickly and easily changed. But not every organization is a speed boat. Some are ocean liners and require trim tabs to help them change. Some organizations need pockets of innovators who work to make changes that will help the larger system change. They need people to act as trim tabs and help the larger organization change path.
Buckminster Fuller is one of the 20th Century’s greatest architects, inventors and innovators. Among his many achievements, Fuller is credited with the design of the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion map. Fuller passed away in 1983 and had the following simple phrase written on his headstone:
“Call me Trim Tab”
Fuller believed in the power of individuals and how the actions of a few could make great changes in larger systems and society. In an interview, Fuller explained his viewpoint:
“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.”
While it’s important for organizations to discuss becoming more agile and to examine weighty systems and processes, we also need to recognize the great changes that a few committed innovators can have to any larger organization. Acting as a trim tab, each of us can have an effect on the larger direction of our respective institutions. While the impact may not be apparent immediately, there’s power in the work of the individual.