What’s a trim tab, and why is it essential for every leader to have one?

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School leaders don’t have time to do everything. They don’t even have time to do everything that is important. That’s why the idea of a trim tab is so important.

Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, introduced me to the metaphor of “trim tab,” which he in turn borrowed from Buckminster Fuller.

Senge wrote: “[S]mall, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they’re in the right place. System thinkers refer to this principle as ‘leverage.’ Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, a place which – with a minimum of effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement.”

Among all the important things leaders could do, the notion of trim tabs asks leaders to think deeply about which activities are of greatest leverage and to do them first.

Identifying the trim tab

The process of identifying a trim tab is not an easy thing to explain, at least for me, but here’s an example that I hope is helpful:

• A school leader or leadership team decides after some consideration of alternatives that the implementation and development of strong teams is a highly-leveraged approach to continuously improving teaching and learning. While teams could be thought of as a trim tab, the leader knew that it was important to examine the issue in greater depth.

• The leader realizes that to create strong teams, trust is essential.

• To create trust, the problem of “parking-lot conversations” that create cliques and mistrust among teachers must be addressed.

• The leader decides that a group agreement must be formulated about the importance of having crucial conversations in the meeting room, not the parking lot.

• To initiate the conversation about group agreements, the leader realizes the “elephant in the room” will have to be described—that trust is being undermined by parking lot conversations.

• The leader feels anxious at just the thought of such a “crucial conversation” because it may lead to conflict.

• The leader realizes that he or she believes that conflict destroys relationships and signals a lack of competence on the leader’s part.

The trim tab: At the conclusion of this line of thought the leader identifies a less-than-obvious but incredibly important trim tab: Addressing the belief behind a fear of conflict that prevents him or her from confronting a number of “elephants” that have taken up permanent residence in the school, with parking lot meetings being but one of them.

This single change is likely to produce effects in a number of important areas of the school’s culture and overall functioning.

This awareness in itself may lead to a significant change. Or it may be the first step in acquiring the skill and habit of addressing difficult issues with candor and integrity.

(My favorite books on this subject are Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson and others.)

In practice it would look like this: The leader addresses his or her beliefs (and perhaps skills) about conflict ➤ to have critical conversations ➤ about parking lot conversations ➤ to determine meeting agreements ➤ to establish trust ➤ as an essential element of effective teamwork ➤ which is an essential component of the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Identifying such highly-leveraged, but less-than-obvious activities is a demanding intellectual activity, one that is often best accomplished in collaboration with colleagues.

But the identification of trim tabs is an essential means by which school leaders work smart both for themselves and for the benefit of the school community.

What are the trim tabs in your work?

3 Responses to “What’s a trim tab, and why is it essential for every leader to have one?”


  1. 1 janetkneufeld February 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I first read about trim tabs when I read your book, Leading for Results. This is a book I have read many times and even tore a chapter out of it to share with a colleague when I was in the LF Academy. Your assumption in the book: When leaders focus on a small number of carefully considered”trim tabs,” they are more likely to use their energy efficiently in achieving important goals. We don’t have to move mountains, we have to move minds, one small step at a time.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks February 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm

      I appreciate your comment, Janet. That’s a pretty good recipe for achieving important results – work in areas of high leverage one step at a time.


  1. 1 THE TRIM TAB | BrownBagTV Trackback on October 26, 2017 at 4:02 am

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