Small Steps, Small Wins

Transformational change is sometimes the response when organizational leaders recognize “what got us here won’t get us there!”

A 2017 Duke University research study on the “VUCA Vortex” (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) found that an astounding 96% of organizations are in some form of transformation – and that was before COVID!  Is your organization engaged in some form of transformational change? If not, does it need to be?  

Transformational change is sometimes the response when organizational leaders recognize that – to paraphrase the book title by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith –  “what got us here won’t get us there!”  “Transformational change,” though, can seem highly complex and overwhelming. Would you be relieved to hear that progress on some complex challenges is possible with simple interventions?

The focus for this issue of the newsletter is “small steps, small wins.” Complex problems call for different strategies and thinking than are needed for highly complicated problems.  What’s needed in complexity is an emergent strategy that involves multiple, safe-to-fail experiments in the direction we hope to go.  We can then amplify those experiments that seem to have an impact, dampen those that don’t, and learn our way forward from both. In other words, we can take small steps and celebrate small wins. 

The resources in this issue are about small steps you might try.  And about small wins you might enjoy. And about “intelligent failures” (missteps and mistakes) from which “small doses of experience enable discovery of uncertainties unpredictable in advance.” (see Taylor article below). I sincerely hope you will identify your own small experiments – and I would greatly appreciate if you would share with me some of those small steps you took!

As always, scan these titles quickly, read my short summaries if the titles grab you, and/or delve more fully in places as your time allows.  Also, my colleague Andrew Stevens and I are launching a new open-enrollment leadership course later this month that I hope will be of interest to you – check it out!


“Foundations of Systems Thinking”

Facilitated by Barry Bales and Andrew Stevens

Starting June 22, 2021 with early-bird pricing through June 8,2021

Foundations is the virtual version of the course I taught worldwide for 25 years. Unlike the more expensive in-person course, it is in two parts: The self-paced phase introduces systems thinking principles and practices; and the live, interactive, virtual phase develops the more complex systems thinking concepts in a small group setting and provides facilitator feedback as attendees solve real world problems.

How do systems-thinking skills link to the focus of this newsletter issue?  The concept of ‘leverage’ in systems thinking terms means to identify a place to intervene in your system/organizational change effort that would have the biggest impact with the smallest amount of effort – small steps that can lead to big wins!

Click to Learn more or Register

Useful Resources

“To Solve Big Problems, Look for Small Wins”

Bill Taylor, Harvard Business Review, June 5, 2020
(Note: even without a subscription, you can access a limited number of HBR articles per month)

Comment:  Under the category of “nothing new under the sun,” this article written in the early months of the pandemic builds upon the 1984 classic article by organizational theorist Karl Weick, reminding us that when it comes to leading change, less is usually more. Quoting Weick, “People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them…. people can’t solve problems unless they think they aren’t problems.”  Weick’s defines a “small win” as a “concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.”

Key concepts (mostly in the author’s words):

  • When things get bad, small wins become especially vital. One small win may seem of only moderate importance, but a series of small wins begins to reveal a pattern that can attract allies and lower resistance to subsequent proposals.
  • The strategy of “small losses” – organizations often punish big risks that don’t work out.  Small losses are less risky and, therefore, more acceptable.

“Trigger BIG change by starting small with ‘15% Solutions”

Christian Verwijs,The Liberators, September 3, 2018

Comment: “15% Solutions” is one of the liberating structures that allow one to unleash and involve everyone in a group.  Originally coined by Gareth Morgan and published in “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures,” the idea is that we all can contribute to a change effort by starting from where we are and with what we already have (no additional resources or approval needed). Think small steps – sometimes even tiny steps.

Key concepts (mostly in the author’s words):

  • “15% solutions” is about changing the flow of the river by moving a few rocks. Pick something that is entirely within your discretion and can be started right now if you want to.
  • This process is a helpful alternative to break out of the tendency to get lost in ambitious, over-the-top ideas that get bogged down in reality. It also helps us avoid the “yes, but…” thinking that can derail progress in thinking and action.
  • There are multiple ways of using this process quickly with groups (as openings, closings, brainstorming, rapid ideation, etc.).

“Complexity toolbox 3: Safe to fail experiments”

Jennifer Garvey Berger, YouTube video

Comment:  This short YouTube video from Jennifer Garvey Berger, a cofounder of Cultivating Leadership with whom I get to do some work, is a very quick overview of safe-to-fail experiments.  And safe-to-fail experiments often start with small steps.

Key concepts (mostly in the author’s words):

  • When you want to move in complexity, you move in a direction rather than toward a destination.
  • Sometimes the best experiments can be found at the edge of an issue instead of its “center,” the location of most of our improvement efforts.
  • Be playful and choose many experiments that can nudge the system over time.

“Have you made it safe to fail?”

McKinsey Digital, February 18, 2020 

Comment: This article could have easily been included in the “psychological safety” issue of this newsletter.  It is included in this issue because of its focus on experimentation, which is a preferred strategy when addressing problems in the complex domain. 

Key concepts (mostly in the author’s words):

  • When looking back on failures, we can say they made us who we are today.  When we look ahead, though, the uncertainty of forward-looking experiments can cause us to be reluctant to risk failure.  Extra effort is needed to make it safe to fail.
  • Technology can be designed to minimize the consequences of failing.
  • Modeling “failure leadership” from the top sends a valuable message.
  • Encourage fast decision making – and anticipate (and allow for) a certain percentage of failures among those decisions.

Book Review

Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Penguin Books, 2009.

Comments: At its simplest, a “nudge” is a small step intended to achieve a small (or not so small) win.  The authors define a “choice architect” as one who has responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.  The context one chooses is intended to influence behavior in a certain way.  An example quoted in the book: when authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam etched an image of a black housefly in each urinal in the men’s rooms, “spillage” was reduced by 80% (I’ll leave it to you to figure out why).

Can “nudges” be manipulative?  Of course, and numerous articles critical of this concept have been written in the years since this book was published.  The authors, though, favor a “libertarian paternalism” that proposes nudges be liberty-preserving practices that make it easy for people to go their own way (e.g. men aren’t required to aim at the housefly). Most nudges, by definition, are small moves.  Consistent with systems thinking concepts, these nudges can result in big impact when focused on the structures most influencing behavior. 

Key ideas from “Nudge” (mostly in the authors’ words):

  • Nudge people to “follow the herd.” A few influential people, offering strong signals about appropriate behavior, can have a big impact. Within the first year of the launch of the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign, which featured Dallas Cowboy players and famous singers like Willie Nelson (a not so small step, for sure!), litter in Texas was reduced by 29%.
  • When designing choice architecture, be aware of the following: requiring choice (versus default choice) is more appropriate for yes/no decisions; expect error; provide feedback; and structure complex choices.
  • Framing matters: from prescription drugs to organ donations to saving the planet.
        Related tag: Uncharted Leadership
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