Agile Coach (Basic): Trim Tabs

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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 term “Spaceship Earth” and invented the geodesic dome among many other things. One of his most powerful concepts was when he reflected on trim tabs. Trim tabs are used in aviation and shipping. Literally, they are attached to a large control surface which would otherwise be difficult to move – like the 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 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 some practices, 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. In software development, Acceptance Test-Driven Development is a relatively simple example that dramatically impacts the way people work.

Taken together – coaching simple things that set up more lessons, teaching them “what they almost already know” and focusing on practices that can greatly improve the environment – can greatly improve how you coach a transition.

Trim Tabs in software development

Following are some of the some significant trim tabs for software development.  These include:

Trim tabs in knowledge work at scale

This chapter was an excerpt from FLEX for the Disciplined Agilist: FLow for Enterprise Transformation (online book). It has been edited to fit into the Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant workshop. The Table of Contents for the book is here.