Trim Tab Strategies in the User Adoption Journey

by | Jan 24, 2019 | PACE approach

Not being a ship guy, the role of a trim tab in changing the direction of a ship was new to me. Basically, when you want to turn a ship, trying to turn the rudder itself is too hard … the water pressure would break it off the ship. So actually when the captain turns the wheel, he/she is turning a small appendage on the rudder, called the trim tab. The change to the trim tab in turn turns the rudder, which in turn turns the ship. Hence a new direction / course is put into place by a very small action that has a flow on effect on a much larger object.

Another way of saying that is that instead of making a direct change to the rudder (and therefore the ship), an indirect change to the rudder via the trim tab turns the whole ship.

Small Changes – Outsized Results

This idea of small changes that lead to outsized results is what I see as the core to the user adoption journey for new ways of working, embracing new modern tools, and learning new skills and capabilities. While creating an adoption strategy is often viewed as just putting together a training program, I prefer to approach the adoption challenge as seeking the trim tab strategies. Training is a very direct strategy – do this, don’t do this, use it this way, any questions, go do it. But training – whether as classroom sessions, webinars, or written materials – have shown to be not very effective at actually creating change beyond the training session; they don’t lead to new ways of working and achieving the adoption of new tools so as to improve the way the team / group / business works.

The user adoption strategies I’ve always been drawn to, now that I know the term, are “trim tab” ones. Executive support – which I now call Aligned Executive Action. Embedded champions. Zero other options. Each is a small change that when applied in the right place and at the right time, creates a change in the context of how work gets done, rather than seeking to drive new content into people’s heads / hands / daily practices.

When an executive states that he or she won’t read any email attachments and that everything has to be in the team’s site in SharePoint Online, that’s an incredible moment – a small moment indeed – that starts a process of learning and development. It creates a small change in context and expectations, and leads people to start doing things differently.

When an embedded champion who has been equipped and empowered to introduce change into his or her team speaks up to show a new and better way of working with Microsoft Teams, that’s an incredible moment too. The team can change. The change can be real. The change can be something that we can manage / embrace.

When the new way to work is the now way to work, and other previously equally valid systems and solutions have been removed / marked read only / decommissioned / made inaccesible, that’s an incredible moment (although please don’t start with this strategy or dump it on a team or group without prior warning). But it subtlety reshapes the expectations for how work will get done and where it will get done. When the leave form you used to print off and give to your manager disappears from the intranet, the new online process for leave request and approval becomes the expectation for what to do now.

Trim tab strategies are indirect. Small. Perhaps even inconsequential. Often underrated. But without them, you’ll either never turn the ship (because you’ll break the rudder) or will have to exert incredible energy to do so using large external forces.

Trim Tab – Learn More

Bucky Fuller talked about the trim tab in a 1972 interview. Steve Strauss talked about trim tabs and change in a 2015 article for USA Today. Wikipedia has a section on trim tabs as a metaphor, citing Bucky Fuller’s article. And this is a pretty good video that includes an animation of how a trim tab works on a ship (although I don’t understand what the presenter is saying).

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