Individuals in large organizations often feel that it is difficult for any one person to have an impact.  Yet, it only takes one person to change the course of things and move the corporation in a new direction. It doesn’t have to be a big thing but a small strategic move that reaches a lot of people. Something visible that sends a signal that things have changed.  A small change can have a big impact.

We tend to forget that most change unfolds naturally.  It is not a series of starts and stops.  We tend to look at change when it occurs not as it evolves.  The cumulative effect of a small series of gradual changes can have a significant impact on the environment and people around it.  One person, one change can ripple throughout the organization.

It was Buckminster Fuller, a well-known futurist that used the trim tab as a metaphor for leadership and personal empowerment. Individual initiative was the key – everyone should feel empowered. The trim tab is the small device attached to a rudder on a ship used to control the pitch and keep it level to maximize speed.  This little device can control the direction of a large luxury liner or a Boeing 747.  Fuller felt that everyone has the capacity to be a trim tab.  He believed that even “small, strategically placed interventions can cause large-scale and profound change.”

As a futurist Fuller had an uncanny ability to spot trends and anticipate potential problems.  This enabled him to focus his efforts in areas that would provide the greatest value to society and mankind. Like a trim tab, one must know where they are headed, the obstacles likely to get in the way, and how much pressure to apply to the situation to bring about the change that is needed.  A trim tab offers tremendous leverage with a minimum of effort to bring about change.

Fuller believed that anything is possible.  He once said that only “one out of 10,000 people is aware of what is going on around us.” Those that think beyond what we know to be possible soon realize that there is a lot yet to be discovered.  As a result, Fuller looked at the world through a wide-angle lens. Expanding his view of a situation into multiple directions enabled him to thoroughly evaluate the cause and find alternative solutions.  A small change in perspective changed the context for finding a new creative solution.

Individuals have the ability to make change happen by their very actions.  Action – reaction.  A change in behavior or a shift in the way you respond to someone.  Real change not contrived change.  A subtle shift in the way you respond to emails, how quickly you return a phone call or how you address your co-workers in a meeting.  All these little changes will make a difference.  Your change creates a change in others that moves the conversation, the idea or solution forward.  No longer cloaked in old patterns new patterns emerge that stimulate thinking and change behavior.

Looking back, we can see how a one small decision or change makes a difference.

Yet not every idea or decision has the same positive outcome.  Take for example the Titanic.  That fateful night the decision was made to turn the starboard left to avoid the iceberg. Experts suggest that had the ship stayed on course it is possible that the bow would have been damaged but the ship would most likely have stayed afloat.  A split-second decision and change in direction that cost the lives of 1500 people and doomed the ship once called unsinkable.

Of course, it is easy to look at the world through the real view mirror.  What is less obvious is to understand how and why a particular decision was made.

In a minute, the world can change.  A small decision can change the course of history.  A new idea can make things obsolete in a matter of months, not years.  We’ve seen that happen over the last few years.  The world is moving at a much faster pace so every move, every change in direction is more critical.  Veering off course can be disruptive.

Intrapreneurs see and interpret the world through their own lens – a unique combination of competencies, their own internal operating system, and the way they think.  These three elements help shape the person, their behavior, and their reaction to the world.

Why are these three elements important?  Without them we are like a ship without rudder.  We are drifting wherever the current takes us.  We are basically unconsciously flowing through life without direction, purpose, and focus.  Letting others dictate our future.  At the end of the journey, we must accept where we land without question, without remorse, without purpose.  This is how most individuals operate today unconsciously moving forward, going wherever the flow takes them.

Not intrapreneurs, they take charge and engage in changing their future and that of their organizations.  They see change more clearly, more precisely.  They feel emotion that guides their internal compass.  They look at every situation as an opportunity to make a difference.  They aren’t just looking to go with the flow but navigate every twist and turn.

Like a trim tab, Intrapreneurs know one small move can change the future.   It can set the organization in an entirely new direction.

In large organizations in particular making course corrections does not come easy.  Each organization settles into a rhythm and flow that becomes the norm. Everyone falls in line and gets on board with the program.  Plans are put in place and marching orders are issued.  Even the slightest interruption in the current strategic direction can upset that rhythm.

Maintaining the status quo is what is most important in terms of the core business.  But changing the status quo is exactly what Intrapreneurs are programmed to do.  Not every change must be big, bold or earth shattering.

One intrapreneur in a large consulting firm saw a pattern in the types of problems that clients brought to them to solve – large information systems problems.  Consistently the firm was being asked to work on one of five types of issues.  Yet this intrapreneur saw that these five problems were all related and interconnected in a way that nobody else had seen.  So, he put together a schematic showing the interconnection of these five issues and how each one impacted the others.

The next time a client came in with one of the five problems he would build a model starting with their issue and proceed to explain and educate the client on how their problem was connected and dependent on the other four.  Then when it came to a discussion about price the Intrapreneur would tell the client what it would cost to solve their one problem.  Inevitably the client would ask about the cost for solving all five – now understanding the interconnection.

Not only did this generate millions of dollars in additional revenue for the consulting firm it solved a major systems problem for the client and saved them money in the long run.  All this Intrapreneur did was see a pattern, look at it from a systems perspective and find a way to educate the client about the value of solving the whole problem, not just one part of the problem.  Small change, large impact.

As Intrapreneurs we do not always have to push for large scale change, some small changes can make a big difference.


Inspired by Buckminster Fuller, “Call Me Trim Tab” and co-written with Sydney Rice, Founder of the Paper Room System

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