Lessons From the Canal

After I returned from a trip to Panama, which included a visit to its most famous structure, I learned that locks – the means for raising and lowering vessels as they traverse a canal – have been around since 300 BC. But of course, a lot has changed since the days of camels towing narrow barges through locks in the ancient Suez Canal. Today, cargo ships 1,200 feet long, and weighing more than 140,000 tons, can be towed from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the marvel of engineering and perseverance that is the Panama Canal.

As I walked along the Canal, I thought, “This is actually a good example of a disruptive tech startup.” First, the French tried to build it, and got only so far. Then the U.S.A. entered the picture, and eventually it was completed. And now, bigger and better than ever, it’s run by Panama.

As it often happens with disruptive tech, the ‘early movers’ wound up suffering the most — and not just due to mosquito-clouds and malaria. It took many rounds of investment, new leaders, new ideas, and new methods to advance the enterprise to viability. And now, it’s public. And, by all accounts, it’s a huge success, having just increased capacity to keep up with advances in the shipping industry.

This was no ‘unicorn,’ and certainly no overnight success. But, as the old palindrome goes, “A man, a plan, a Canal: Panama.” (Palindromes read the same backwards and forwards, like ‘Ana nab a banana.’) The canal, just like many other big steps forward, came from a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

There’s a deeper level to the startup analogy. The physics of the Canal works like this. Passage requires the vessel to go from sea level, over higher ground, to sea level on the other side, so the canal is divided into several segments, separated by locks. A ship enters a lock, or gateway, and after the gate is closed and sealed, huge amounts of water are pumped into the lock. When water level rises to match that of the next segment, the forward gate opens and the ship moves ahead. The reverse happens on the downward path, with water being pumped out of a lock to lower the vessel to the next-lower level. Controlling the water level – the environment within which a ship operates – serves the ship’s needs, and progress toward the goal is ensured. But a lot more than specs and construction and mechanisms that make it all work: it’s also the team.

What struck me is that these concepts and processes are similar to the physics of teaming. If a working environment is carefully calibrated to align with the needs of the enterprise, projects move upward and onward, as obstacles are overcome. But If the environment is out of sync, you’re liable to wind up somewhere between getting nowhere, and teetering at the edge of disaster. The environment I’m talking about is what people commonly call corporate culture. If it’s every-person-for-their-own-self, there might be a semblance of progress, but it won’t be reliable and, over time, it may not be sustainable. But if, instead, it’s every-person-for-the-team, and through their collective efforts they bring together exactly what that team needs, they raise the chances of success, and lower the risk of failure. Just like the water in the locks.

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