Monday, February 15, 2010

Beware the Water Hammer

Water Hammer:  a pressure surge or wave resulting when a fluid (usually a liquid but sometimes also a gas) in motion is forced to stop or change direction suddenly (momentum change). Water hammer commonly occurs when a valve is closed suddenly at an end of a pipeline system, and a pressure wave propagates in the pipe.

They say everything you need to know you learned in Kindergarten.  I still managed to learn a little in later years, including my graduate years studying water.  But the concept is the same -- the world is full of patterns, and systems begin to look alike regardless of the discipline.

Which brings me to my point: driving change in an organization has analogies to driving change in a fluid system.  The people dynamics have corollaries in fluid dynamics.  People have momentum and fluids have momentum.

When you close a valve in a water system, it is easy to congratulate yourself for your success.  No water is passing!  I have changed the system!  Problem solved.  But depending on the system, seconds or minutes or hours later you might be dead.  Explosions, ruptures, and implosions, sometimes deafening and disastrous, can be your end.  Why?  The accumulated momentum in the system is hard to stop.  You have to think of all of the water, all the way upstream, and determine where all of that momentum will be absorbed.

In working on 12sprints, we had to change the system of SAP to account for some of our new models.  Elastic subscription services have a ton of ramifications for a traditional software company, from accounting to legal to privacy to support, and every time we reached a decision (closed a valve / redirected flow) we learned that other parts of the system had momentum we hadn't anticipated.  And were there explosions?  That would be too strong a word, but there definitely turbulent debates and some bent metal in the expansion joints.

My conclusion?  Change is a lifestyle.  It is a lifestyle only survived by being relentlessly attuned to the rest of the system, and using a simple recipe when the pressure builds: be open, creative, and luckier than most.

And always wear waterproof clothing.