Bumpers, Boosts, and Tilts

A discussion late last year about different ways to influence organizations led to this framing. The pinball machine metaphor was purely accidental – I don’t actually know that much about them, aside from that one time when we went to a pinball machine museum (it was glorious fun). The basic setup is this: we roughly bucket different ways to influence as bumpers, boosts, and tilts.

Bumpers are hard boundaries, bright lines that are not to be crossed. Most well-functioning teams have them. From security reviews, go/no-go meetings, or any sort of policy-enforcing processes, these are mostly designed to keep the game within bounds. They tend to feel like stop energy – and for a good reason. They usually encode hard-earned lessons of pain and suffering: our past selves experienced them so you don’t have to. Bumpers are usually easy to see and even if hidden, they make themselves known with vigor whenever we hit them. By their nature, bumpers tend to be reactive. Though they will help you avoid the undesired outcomes, they aren’t of much use in moving toward something – that is the function of boosts.

Boosts propel. They are directional in nature, accelerating organizations toward desired outcomes. Money commonly figures into a composition of a boost, though just as often, boosts can vibe with a sense of purpose. An ambitious, resonant mission can motivate a team, as well as an exciting new opportunity and/or a fresh start. Boosts require investment of energy, and sustaining a boost can be challenging. The sparkle of big visions wears off, new opportunities grow old, and bonuses get spent. Because of that, boosts are highly visible when the new energy is invested into them, and eventually fade as this energy dissipates. For example, many organizational change initiatives have this quality.

Finally, tilts change how the playing field is leveled. They are often subtle in their effects, relying on some other constant force to do the work. Objects on a slightly slanted floor will tend to slide toward one side of the room, gently but inexorably driven by gravity. In teams, tilts are nearly invisible by themselves. We can only see their outcomes. Some tilts are temporary and jarring, like the inevitable turn to dramatic events in the news during a meeting. Some tilts are seemingly permanent, like the depressing slide toward short-term wins in lieu of long-term strategy, … or coordination headwinds (Woo hoo! Hat trick!! Three mentions of Alex’s excellent deck in three consecutive stories!) Despite their elusive nature, titls are the only kind of influence capable of a true 10x change. A well-placed gentle tilt can change paradigms. My favorite example of such a tilt is the early insistence of folks who designed protocols and formats that undergird the Internet to be exchanged as RFCs, resulting in openness of the most of the important foundational bits of the comlex beautiful mess that we all love and use. However, most often, tilts are unintentional. They just don’t look interesting or useful to mess with.

Any mature organization will have a dazzling cocktail of all three of these. If you are curious about this framing, consider: how many boosts in your team are aimed at the bumpers? How many boosts and bumpers keep piling on because nobody had looked at the structure of tilts? How many efforts to 10x something fail because they were designed as boosts? Or worse yet, bumpers?

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