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Hull Speed – Limits of Change

Over the last 25+ years in all sectors of the economy, we’ve been changing management/leadership structures, the tools and technologies to do the work, and the headcount of workers at all levels.

Initially the changes had impact very quickly – on production or operations and on the bottom line or budget.

As we continued to make incremental changes, the effect was progressively less. In many cases we are at the point (or rapidly approaching it) where the next change will have no positive effect. Let me say it again: change now has little to no desired effect.


Picture a boat – when under way it creates a bow wave as the hull displaces the water and a stern wave (wake) following the boat as the water fills in where the hull was.

Each hull has a maximum speed that it can travel through the water – and no amount of additional power or sail can make that boat move faster. There is a physics formula to calculate the maximum hull speed, but simply put, when the bow wave and stern wake meet the boat has reached top speed.

A similar effect has been happening as we make continuous incremental changes. The initial modifications and work-arounds eliminate inefficiencies and create productive gains. With successive changes we run out of modifications and work-arounds and are limited to swapping one task for another (analogous to the bow and stern waves converging). The current change is possible ONLY at the cost of forgoing an existing task or process.

Just like modifying the design of the hull can change its maximum speed, making dramatic changes to the organization can have a major and lasting effect. Possibilities include:

  • engaging the Doers in the process of change – tell them the goal and get their help to reach it

  • Apply the principles of disruptive innovation (remove features, sell cheap, exponentially increase market reach) to reinvent the organization

  • shift from a service-based entity to a platform-based entity – make heavy use of technology and automation to provide information, routine answers, intake and output of documents, filings, and reports, and use staff to address the small percent of complex situations which arise.

Do you see situations where hull speed, disruptive innovation of government as a platform would make a positive impact?

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