How to Turn a Supertanker

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There is a management metaphor that changing the direction of an organisation is a bit like changing the direction of a supertanker.  It can be done, but organisations are big, cumbersome and it takes a lot of time to push them onto another course.

A flawed analogy

It is a nice analogy, but a flawed one.  Turning a super tanker doesn’t take that much effort at all.

There are (at least) three ways to turn a supertanker:

1. Apply a lot of effort

Go to the back of the ship and push it so it points the direction you want it to go.  This is the obvious approach, but it is hard work.  I’m not a naval architect, and only scraped an A level in physics, but a quick online search tells me that:

  • An empty supertanker has a displacement of about 70,000 tonnes
  • Is about 400 meters long
  • Travels at 20 miles per hour
  • Can carry 3,000,000 barrels of oil
  • A barrel of oil weighs 138 kilograms.

So the amount of force needed to turn a supertanker using this method is …errr… a lot.

2. Apply a bit of effort

Push the rudder of the ship in the opposite direction.  By using the principles of leverage and fluid dynamics you can achieve a much easier result. 

If you have sailed a dingy then you will have used a rudder.  It is a bit counter-intuitive to start with, it feels like you are pointing in the “wrong” direction, but you quickly get the hang of it.

Unfortunately a supertanker is a good deal bigger than a sailing dingy, the rudder can weigh up to 200 tonnes. So pushing the rudder is still no mean feet.

3. Apply minimal effort

Go back and start pushing again in the original direction.  But this time apply the pressure to the trimtab.  A trimtab is a sliver of steel on the end of the rudder. It is effectively a rudder for the rudder.  By applying a little pressure here you can force the rudder to move, which in turn forces the ship to move.

You don’t have to apply that much pressure at all to turn a supertanker.  But you do have to know where to apply it.

Complicated systems

The philosopher, inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller suggested the trimtab analogy. He believed that transformation doesn’t take much effort at all, provided you apply pressure to the right place.

To find the transformation point you have to analyse and understand the system you are working with. Given the complexity of our organisations that point is rarely obvious or intuitive.

Turning a supertanker isn’t about force, it is about knowledge and understanding. It might be a better management analogy than I thought.

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

Albert Einstein

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Photo by Shaah Shahidh on Unsplash

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