Stephen Covey writes often about how difficult change can be. He espouses starting small when trying to make changes in order to ensure progress and prevent early failure; in essence taking baby steps. Covey also uses the metaphor of the “trim tab” to illustrate his point that small incremental adjustments can lead to big changes.
The trim tab on a ship’s rudder is used to provide the leverage necessary to move a much larger turning or “change” surface. By moving the trim tab to one side, a low pressure zone is created (the water must travel faster on the turned side) causing the rudder to move slowly in that direction. This, in turn, makes it easier to turn the entire rudder and ultimately change the direction of a huge ship. The trim tab concept proves that small changes can have a huge impact.
Researching this concept led me to discover that this idea is borrowed by Covey from the great thinker, futurist, architect, and inventor, Buckminster Fuller. Descended from a long line of New England nonconformists, Fuller was twice expelled from Harvard and never completed his formal education. He saw service in the U.S. Navy during WWI as commander of a crash-boat flotilla. In 1917 he married Anne Hewlett, daughter of James Monroe Hewlett, a well-known architect and muralist. Hewlett had invented a modular construction system using a compressed fiber block, and after the war Fuller and Hewlett formed a construction company that used this material (later known as Soundex, a Celotex product) in modules for home construction. In this operation Fuller himself supervised the erection of several hundred houses.
Fuller stated that this experience led to a profound re-examination of his life. He ultimately chose to embark on “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” This experiment, in turn, led to his philosophical concept of the trim tab, seen in this quote from an interview in 1972:
“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.”
Fuller kept true to his new philosophy and became a trim tab during his life with an array of inventions, concepts, philosophies, and writings during his relatively long life. And while Buckminster Fuller was an intelligent and highly gifted man, perhaps his greatest contribution was this notion that a small change, however seemingly insignificant, can greatly impact the lives of others for the better.