Delays & Accelerants (Paradox Pair #56)

A reverse salient, a task that causes a project pace to slow, is a gift that can lead to great value creation.

Delays & Accelerants (Paradox Pair #56)

Recall our exploration of the deadbeat escapement [#41: Headway & Recoil], an example of the uneven course of technology advancement. Our focus there was one of linear progression, where advancement is made in a serial fashion. We learn from the setbacks we encounter, making our future solutions better.

Rarely, however, is our work done in a serial only fashion. We usually have multiple, parallel tasks underway that need to coordinate and inform each other. If serial tasks are a series of uneven starts and stops, then we can expect each of our parallel tasks to mirror this behavior, creating a cascade of schedule adjustments. This implies that tasks we are dependent on may fall behind schedule. Or a task may surge ahead, outpacing the planned timeline, accelerating what once were future dependent needs.

The task which is furthest behind and which slows the overall pace of the system is called the reverse salient. This phrase, appropriated from military jargon, was first applied to technology by American historian Thomas P. Hughes in his prize winning book: Networks of Power. Due to its impact on a project's schedule, the reverse salient deserves additional attention because it hampers the overall system. Yet it is far more important than that — it holds the key to hidden innovation of great value.

Overcoming the reason the reverse salient exists often requires a re-thinking of a subsystem that has been overlooked. For example, the creation of the o-ring to seal hydraulic systems was the breakthrough invention that enabled faster flight — removing the drag of an aircraft's fixed, hanging landing gear. These items are often overlooked because they don't appear to be in the critical path and are taken for granted or presumed to be "just the way it is".

Identifying a reverse salient provides us an opportunity to create a new solution that will bring significant competitive advantage. For this reason, reverse salients are a gift. When we encounter them we allow our curious mindset to explore alternatives, granting us previously concealed possibilities. What initially slowed us down can speed us down a whole new path.


The Paradox Pairs series is an exploration of the contradictory forces that surround us.  A deeper study finds that these forces often complement each other if we can learn to tap into the strength of each. See the entire series by using the Paradox Pairs Index.