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
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.