Beyond Pressuredome: Better Boiler Bubbles, and the dynamics of innovation

According to the company’s website, Spirax-Sarco has been working for nearly a century to help its customers “optimize productivity.”  The company specializes in helping customers with the “control and efficient use of steam.”  In other words, they know a lot about steam boilers, the common technology for heating buildings.  What Spirax-Sarco didn’t know, was how much their knowledge of steam boilers applied to the dynamics of change and innovation in organizations.

For more than 30 years, I’ve worked as an internal change leader in the public sector.  I have designed and led award-winning quality and process improvement efforts, and award-winning public-private partnerships.  Most recently, I worked as advisor to the leader of a Federal agency in the field of behavioral health.  Over the years, I have consistently worked  with teams and groups ranging from 5 to over 1,000 people at a time.  The common dynamics of teams are often influenced by the energies of power and fear; curiosity and resilience.

The bookshelves and blogosphere are crammed with information and ideas about innovation.  In order to survive and thrive in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, organizations need to innovate, and spread the new ideas to everyone.  Learning from the fields of complex human systems, and social network analysis, provide key insights into enhancing the likelihood of successful innovation:

> Connect everyone

>Connect everything

Sounds simple enough.  Which brings us back to the steam boiler.  Fundamentally, a giant tea kettle, with a network of pipes to carry the steam throughout a building.  Maybe not a whistle to tell us our water is boiling, but in fact, some very similar ways to see what’s happening with our energized bubbles.

Several years ago, while working as a training administrator, I had to obtain training in the operation of our own steam boilers.  I accompanied our class and the instructor, as he toured our own facilities, and pointed out the key features of the boilers.  The first thing I noticed was the C-shaped glass tube that was on the end of the large boiler.  It was a simple way to see the current water level inside the boiler.  More water, or more agitation from heating the boiler, and the water level rose.  Cool things down or evaporate the water, and the level dropped. 

Back at the classroom, the instructor showed a training video: “Inside the Steam Boiler,” which he had obtained from the folks at Spirax-Sarco.  I happened to be in the room, since our CEO asked to drop by and observe a training class in session. Watching the animations on the screen, I learned two things about steam boilers that struck me as relating to the dynamics of innovation and change:

1) the relationship between the heat energy applied to the water in the boiler, and the energy being transmitted up through the system is not linear.  While you’d expect that the hotter the burner, the hotter the resulting water/steam, that is not the case.  At a certain point, the water becomes essentially “resilient” – it takes more and more heat energy from the burner, to continue to raise the energy of the steam.  In other words, the bubbles inside the boiler can “carry” an extra load of heat energy, before they are transformed into the total vapor of steam.

2) As you watch the glass tube along the boiler, the level of bubbling activity that carries the optimal amount of heat energy is not too low, not too high, and not in the middle.  It is, in fact, at the higher level just before the bubbles begin to burst and vaporize.  With too little energy, the boiler bubbles do not carry enough of the burner’s heat energy up into the pipes and throughout the building.  At too high a level, the bubbles hit the pipes, losing energy, and leeching minerals back into the boler to detrimental effect.

It was one of those “Aha!” monents for me.  Throughout the literature on complex human system dynamics, we read about the optimal state being in the “turbulent zone at the edge of chaos.”  Just the right amounts of energy in people from ideas and information, and just the right amounts of interaction and communication exchange.  The view inside the boiler was a physical model and example of how this works with people.

So i called Spirax-Sarco the next day, down in South Carolina. I explained who I was, and that I wanted to get a copy of their video.  I was forwarded to a guy in their marketing department, who assumed I was a boiler operations trainer.  When I explained that no, I was a teacher of organizational leadership and change, there was a silence on the other end of the line.  Needless to say, it took a few nminutes of explaining, before the company’s representative began to understand why I was interested in their video.  He said he’d have to call me back on my request. 

A few days later, he did call back.  Spirax-Sarco would be happy to provide the video, as long as I would assure them I didn’t use it in boiler operations training.  No problem.  The gentleman told me that no one in the company had ever heard of a request like mine, and they were frankly puzzled at what I meant.  I assured him that the firm’s video would help people learn that they were not unlike the percolating orbs of water in the video: under pressure to do their best, and best able to do it when they had the energy and support of others.  I could sense his smile at the other end of the line.

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5 Responses to Beyond Pressuredome: Better Boiler Bubbles, and the dynamics of innovation

  1. Ted Bibbes says:

    An interesting and appropriate metaphor for change and leadership. I believe those of us who work in the “change and innovation” arena know (tacitly or intuitively) that change does not happen on its own. Some form of pressure must instigate and feed the process. A boiler is a great example of too little or not enough pressure, and we fail to have any or the wrong type change take place. Too much pressure and you may lose control, risk exerting effort with little additional payback, or things may just blow up on you.

    If you have not read Ron Heifetz book “Leadership Without Easy Answers,” I highly recommend it. In it he uses a similar metaphor- a pressure cooker. The point being in order for change to occur, there needs to be in place some form of “holding environment” – the pressure cooker, and some way to monitor and control it- the gauge and valve. The steam boiler system is another great example. The tank is the holding environment, the gauges and valves allow the pressure to be monitored, and the pipes allow us to direct the resulted change (water to steam) to correct and beneficial use.

    As change agents, and leaders of organizations, it is our role to make sure our holding environments exist, remain intact and operational, monitor and adjust the pressure, and direct the energy to the right place. IF we can accomplish all this, we can sit back and enjoy a comfortable setting without extra layers of “stuff” to protect us from the cold.

    • complexified says:

      Thank you, Ted. I had the pleasure of meeting Ron Heifetz and several of his colleagues in Manhattan, in December 2008. It was a small group, in a workshop setting for a half-day presentation on their (his firm, Cambridge Associates) approach to leadership and change. each attendee was given a copy of Ron and Marty Linsky’s subsequent book, “Leadership on the Line.” If you have seen it, I would also recommend their most recent book, “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.” That day, I happened to have arrived early, and I was the only attendee present, when Ron and his colleagues came in. Ron and I ended up talking for about 25 minutes, mainly about my ongoing work in leading change within government. In a separate blog post, I’ll write more about what I have learned from the work of Ron Heifetz, as well as the related work of David Snowden. The single biggest problem I observe in leaders, is what I call the “as if” tendency. That is, treating what Heifetz calls “adaptive” challenges, AS IF they were just “technical” challenges. We ignore the complex adaptive work at our own peril.

      Thanks again,


      • Ted Bibbes says:

        We have had a couple of chapters to read from the new book as well in my Doctoral program. Between research, paper writing, and other reading- i try to work in the new book. It really turns your thoughts of leadership around once you understand the adaptive challenges. Great stuff. Also, look at Klien’s book “Shadows and Streetlights” very complementary to Heifetz thinking.

  2. John Baranzelli says:

    This is a great post Bruce. The application of appropriate stimulus is an integral component of change management so I think your example is quite appropriate. The other interesting phenomenon occurs when the stimulus is removed as the second law of thermodynamics predicts that the boiler system will move towards a state of higher entropy. In a very loose sense, entropy can be defined as disorder. So if your hypothesis is correct (that a steam boiler is a good analogy for understanding the behavior of an organization), we’d predict that if the heat of leadership is removed in your example, the organization will likely begin to move towards a state of greater and greater disorder.

    Sound familiar?

    • complexified says:

      Thank you John. As an amateur star-gazer and reader of physics stuff, I am delighted to see your reference to entropy and the Second law of Thermodynamics! I am not sure if entropy is so much about (dis)order, as it is about the energy and activity among the agents in the system. In natural systems, without the ongoing input of energy into a system, the system tends to “maximum entropy” – a sort-of backwards way of saying it comes to a halt. In human systems, where Dawkins talks of ideas as “memes” or the “DNA” of social systems, I personally believe ideas are the “energy quanta” that keep human systems active and evolving. In other words, communicated thought-energy keeps increasing through the interaction of agents in a human system, and we keep up the Second Law stuff, increasing “negative entropy” (that is, having more energy and activity in the system as a whole). We humans tend to have our systems and orgs evolve to ever-higher states of complexity (if not always desired results LOL).

      Thanks again for the kind words, and I look forward to our next meeting.


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