“I always say to myself: What is the most important thing we can think about at this extraordinary moment?” – Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller used the phrase “comprehensive anticipatory design science” to describe his work and research. In an article at Ready, Aim, Inspire, Medard Gabel and Jim Walker identify ten principles that characterize Fuller’s approach to problem-solving leadership. The following is an abridgement of their article.
1. Think comprehensively.
“I always start with the Universe.”
In terms of leadership, this means taking the time to frame challenges clearly by digging into their root causes or the formative forces that brought them into being – and seeing the opportunities that are always present. Instead of trying to convince people to change their behavior, Fuller sought to change the environment that drove those behaviors. At the core of this approach was a respect for the individual and their decisions.
2. Anticipate the future.
Fuller was able to anticipate what the world would need at critical junctures, and offer up both the philosophical framework and practical tools for solving those issues. Picking up on “weak signals” long before anyone else is paying attention is akey habit which leaders must develop.
3. Respect gestation rates.
Fuller often pointed out that everything has its own gestation rate. A baby takes 9 months, a new computer chip 18 months, an automobile three to five years. In the second half of the 20th century, gestation rates began to pick up in speed as one set of technological breakthroughs would impact another. Carefully identifying and synchronizing with the gestation rates of changes you are facing helps ensure that your solution arrives at just the right moment. If you arrive too early, your solution will not gain traction; too late and you will forever be playing catch-up.
4. Envision the best possible future.
Over the course of his life, Fuller developed a comprehensive moral vision of what the world should look like given our technological capabilities: a world where everyone’s basic human needs were met, the environment sustained or regenerated, and a world safe and secure from the threats of war and social injustice were three of the linchpins of his vision.
People often respond more enthusiastically to big and inspiring challenges than to safe, incremental change.
5. Be a “Trimtab.”
“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary – the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.“
Efficiently bringing about change with minimum effort – doing more with less – was another of Fuller’s key principles.
The guiding questions for everyday leadership that emerge from a trimtab approach are easy to list, but difficult to execute:
a. What ship are you steering?
b. What direction is your ship currently heading?
c. What outside currents are impacting your ship?
d. Where ought your ship be going?
e. In the “ship” you are trying to steer, what is the rudder, and what is the trimtab?
f. How can you most efficiently exert pressure?
g. How do you continue to navigate successfully through changing tides?
6. Take individual initiative.
Fuller did not seek to be a “leader” in any conventional political or economic sense. He saw what needed to be done to make the world a better place and which no one else was attending to, and, being true to himself, dared to go off in directions that the typical crowd-following individual never dreamed of going. His approach was an anti- “Big Man” leadership. He felt that everyone should be and is a leader… of at least their own life.
7. Ask the obvious and “naive” questions.
Sometimes leadership involves nothing more than simply asking the obvious questions. “Why do we do things this way?” “Gee… I don’t know – that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
For Fuller, his basic questions typically took on a big picture view: “With our expanding technical resources – why can’t we commit to feeding and clothing everyone on the planet?” “Why can’t we design homes that are easy and inexpensive to build?” “What is wealth?” “Why shouldn’t wealth continue to increase as our knowledge of technology grows exponentially?” “Why don’t we simply look at how nature builds things, and then build our own structures accordingly?”
Part of the power of these questions lies in the fact that they spring from individual observation and inspiration. They are not dependent on a committee, policy, procedure, official edict. or dogma that no company or group has thought to address because they hadn’t thought to ask the obvious questions.
8. Do more with less.
“Real wealth is indestructible and without practical limit. It can be neither created nor lost – and it leaves one system only to join another – the Law of Conservation of Energy. Real wealth is not gold. Real wealth is knowing what to do with energy.”
Many people continue to mistake money for wealth, but capital itself has become a vast manufactured commodity circling around the Earth in search of true productive wealth. And what is productive wealth? Knowing how to do more with less. Any technology or system of technology that can create more output with less input will rapidly gain influence in today’s hyperlinked global economy.
Fuller’s equation for physical success of humanity can be summarized fairly succinctly:
A. True wealth = Resources + Human know-how applied to meet needs.
B. You can never learn less, you can only learn more; therefore wealth is increasing as we increase our understanding of the world, ourselves and the Universe
While the supply of raw materials is a zero-sum game and leads to a scarcity mentality, the wild card in wealth creation that breaks the zero-sum standoff is human ingenuity, allowing us to accomplish more and more with less and less. Fuller was convinced that every individual could make a contribution to this overall cycle of wealth creation.
9. Reform the environment, not people.
“The function of what I call design science is to solve problems by introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices. For example, when humans have a vital need to cross the roaring rapids of a river, as a design scientist I would design them a bridge, causing them, I am sure, to abandon spontaneously and forever the risking of their lives by trying to swim to the other shore.”
Flowing out of his trimtab philosophy, Fuller came to the conclusion that the most effective leverage can almost always be found not by trying to change habit-ridden men and women, but by reforming the physical infrastructure in which they live and work. Thus, many of his projects focused on large complex systems such as housing, automobiles, energy, etc. Fuller was convinced that if these large scale systems could be optimized with a view toward maximizing actual human gain rather than gain as measured by financial statements, there would be a broad impact on human society.
10. Solve problems through action.
Fuller’s creative portfolio documents a stunning range of projects, from shelters to flying cars, bathrooms, floating cities and social policy and interests ranging form geometry to cosmology, architecture, technology, and humanity’s function in the universe. The scope of his curiosity and pursuits were united by a common thread of providing humanity with tools for the benefit of all. The value he put on money reflected his big picture views on much of society’s other sacred cows. He saw money as a means to further his explorations in “making the world work for 100% of humanity” but it had little intrinsic value.
If humanity does not opt for integrity we are through completely. It is absolutely touch and go. Each one of us could make the difference.
Here in the early 21st century, the Internet – by offering individuals almost unlimited access to information – has made Fuller’s Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Leadership approach even more powerful than ever.
I had the privilege of attending a talk by Buckminster Fuller while I was a student at the University of Illinois, around 1975 or so. I wish I had a recording of it, because I no longer remember much of what he said. What I do remember is that it was an exhilarating thrill ride of a talk – a looping, soaring tour of the expansive universe of his mind. I’m sorry he is gone; he blessed us all with his presence.