Disciplined Agile

Agile Coach: Trim Tabs

Many people have admired and been inspired by R. Buckminster Fuller, author of the ground-breaking book, Critical Path. He was the person who created the terms “Spaceship Earth” and “geodesic dome.”

Call Me Trim Tab

One of his most powerful concepts concerns trim tabs. Trim tabs are used in aviation and shipping. These are flaps that are attached to a large control surface which would otherwise be difficult to move. Think about the flaps on the flaps of airplanes. 

Trim Tabs

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 points to trim tabs being more than just highly leverage-able things. Part of how a trim tab works is that it changes the environment in which it is operating. This change to the environment is why trim tabs are so important. In the example above, the rudder works better because the trim tab has changed the environment it is in (the water) so that it can work better.

Trim Tabs and Coaching

Coaching is not simply a matter of going after low hanging fruit, improving what is obvious and easy; you have to attend to how one thing sets up another. As people learn a new practice, it sets them up to learn others. It is also important to pay attention to the leverage that a practice can exert on the environment. A simple practice can massively improve the way in which people work. Taken together, these simple practices set people up for more learning, teaching people “what they almost already know,” and focusing on practices that can greatly improve the environment, greatly improve coaching a whole transition.

Here are examples of trim tabs for software development. They are simple, approachable techniques that set up the team and the system for further success.