This is my favorite line from this week’s book. It’s also the underlying logic behind this website that I call a “service”. Today’s post is about how starting small is the most inspiring thing one can do. Imagine you have a big need somewhere, a major problem that affects the entire community. The stakes are massive, the potential solutions are even bigger. A lot is on the line.

That’s typically when we hunker down. Or, in the case of Ford, that’s when we commission more analysis, more studies, more designs. Because whatever we do, it’s got to solve these REALLY BIG PROBLEMS. Or in the case of the Edsel, achieve these really big visions.

We can’t help it. Big problems must have big solutions. Big studies. 12-month timeframes. There’s got to be another way.

According to The Lean Startup and many other books, the best thing to do is to shrink the big idea or the big problem down to the smallest set of forward actions you can take. What makes it really fun is when you can develop actions from multiple angles of the problem.

Here’s an example: what are we going to do about affordable housing?

That’s a big question for a big problem and efforts are frequently mired in debate and giant action. So here are a few smaller, more digestible secondary questions to consider instead: what is a home that anyone can build? Where? How?

Trials can then emerge, information created, new benefits realized, and momentum carries. Will it solve THE BIG PROBLEM? Nope. That’s why the phrase is “start” small, not “solve” small. But work on those small scale elements can open up bigger, tangential changes.

And hey, that’s just one channel. Pursue multiple channels underneath the Big Problem at the same time. Address the issues around permitting, zoning structures, and LIHTC. Do it simultaneous. Six small projects are more effective than one large project.

If you’re really impatient, add a third clause to the titular concept. Think Big, Start Small, and Move Fast. That isn’t for the faint of heart but there is a good guide for that sort of thing.

By the way, this idea has nothing to do with affordable housing. That’s not what I’m writing about. It’s not about avoiding the big questions, either. It’s about undermining the power of big questions (the prestige, the allure, the heroism, the debate, the expense, the controversy, the loudness) by attacking the pillars that hold them up. It’s about creating a swarm of small actions instead of a single monolithic lunge. That’s a better LEAN strategy.

When facing the big problems, maybe it’s the little things that count.

Photo of the “Tinyhouse University” at Berlin’s Bauhaus-Archiv