Think big, start small. — Eric Ries

Of all the great wisdom in this week’s book, Switch, this article’s title might be my favorite. People seem to always agree with me whenever I invoke this idea. I’ve even seen people breathe sighs of relief the minute this notion comes to mind.

Why? I think it starts with the tendency to think in big, general terms. There is a seductive power to Big Problems. Everyone enjoys talking about them. The talk of Big Problems is built on generalities, broad hypotheses, and lots of platitudes; as a result, these conversations are very accessible. Much like the weather, everyone can talk about the economy, healthcare, or affordable housing. Everyone feels those issues every day. But few can talk about the driving factors of those issues such as debt cycles, hospital-insurer negotiations, or delays in providing supply due to the structural limitations of the construction industry. Not only are these things arcane, they’re probably boring to many people, too.

All this big thinking on the broader topics lets us imagine broad, rangy ideas about the future. All of which can inspire hope and confidence. A big, bold vision is a powerful thing.

The confidence quickly erodes, however, when the talk of big problems and big visions leads to talk of big solutions. Those big solutions, regardless of topic, become very costly very fast. Suddenly, the camaraderie shared over a common problem becomes a great divide over minor differences. The big solution gets hacked up with little compromises until no one can recognize it anymore.

This dynamic describes a lot of policy-making for the federal government. This is the stuff of sausage-making, going back to the John Godfrey Saxe quote Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made”.

But this happens in business, too. It was the desperate quest for Big Solutions (and thus Big Profits) that fueled to the Theranos scandal and the strange behavior of other companies looking to scale as fast as possible.

The point, I think, is that the singular attempts at Big Solutions seldom work out. The Big Problems can and should inspire Big Visions but that’s about it. At the start, anyway.

Shrink The Change – And Lengthen The Horizon Too

So the wisdom of “shrink the change” holds a lot of power here. Note that this isn’t “shrink the context” or “shrink the vision”. True to Eric Reis’s quote, which I also love, we can and should continue to think big but the journey starts with the first step forward.

Whatever the challenge you or your organization faces, whatever change you wish to make, it’s important to remember that the problem won’t be going anywhere any time soon. This isn’t a fling, as our authors suggest, it’s a marriage. No one can be expected to solve big problems immediately.

Want a child to enjoy learning the piano? Sit with them and goof off on the keys for five minutes; make some noise. The next day, make it six minutes. The next day, listen to a song and try to mimic it. No pressure, it’s just for fun. And some time later, what was fun becomes interesting, curious, and the child might feel interested in going back to the piano on their own. It’s no guarantee but I like the odds. In other words, if you want a child to enjoy learning the piano, give yourself (and them) six weeks of small steps to see what happens. Such a slow, steady curriculum of small efforts is akin to striking multiple matches until one of them starts a fire.

A person just needs permission to start with whatever is the small thing they can do today.

The Upward Spiral

Consider Rosalie Bradford. I can’t imagine anyone experiencing more radical change. Rosalie once held two world records as the heaviest woman in the world and also the woman to lose the most weight. The weight loss was sparked by an absolutely beautiful gesture from Richard Simmons gave her permission to believe in herself and make a start.

As the story goes, Simmons reached out to Rosalie and did what he always does: he gave her sincere compassion and hope. He then sent her a number of videos and a dieting plan that could provide a path forward. There was no talk of training for a marathon or any extreme diet. There was simply an acknowledgement of her worth as a person and some resources that she could use if she wanted to.

She did. And so she took the first step she could towards weight loss by applying one bit of straightforward advice that Simmons made clear: “Find something you can move, besides your mouth, and move it.”

Not the most eloquent but clearly effective. Bradford started by clapping her hands as she watched Simmons’ videos.

Just clapping her hands. It was the only movement she could manage. But clapping hands became moving arms became moving body became a total weight loss of 768 pounds.

Shrink the change.

Visible Goals Are Signs Of Hope

And also, in Bradford’s case, set visible goals. Can you see it achieved? In her case, the sight of progress created a powerful upward spiral (i.e. reinforcing feedback loop for the systems-thinkers) and the Big Vision was achieved. Without the Big Solution.

It reminds me of the following quote from football coach Bill Parcells, as featured in our book this week:

When you set small, visible goals and people achieve them they start to get into their heads that they can succeed. They break the habit of losing and begin to get into the habit of winning. — Bill Parcells.

Notice the idea of “visible goals” and the word “habit”. It is seldom one great act but rather a couple small habits that lead to the great successes. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was the iPhone. Neither was the incredible change that Rosalie Bradford made.

But every day can feel like progress if it is something you can see. Whether it’s a business KPI or a diet plan you stick to for the entire day or a slightly lower time on the 1-mile run, the visible goal is like an objective third-party affirming your progress. It always makes me feel good.

Courage Still Required – And Technique

I should close with the acknowledgement that “shrinking the change” requires real courage in some cases. It’s a much bigger leap of faith to take a long approach over time instead of a single attack in a climactic moment. No one will be ever applauded for saying, “We will tackle healthcare with a focused sequence of small, visible goals strung out over the next decade. We will start with …”

With what? I don’t know. Whatever becomes the start, it will be attacked from all angles as if it were a Big Solution when in fact it’s just a small step. So the courage comes from accepting that price, weathering the storm, planning the next steps even when others will say “Go big or go home” or “It will never work”.

Anyone who really wants to make a change can do that. This wisdom feels obvious and reaffirming to those few. Anyone else who just wants the validation of being a “change agent” will probably think this article was boring, simplistic, and incorrect. We don’t have time for that, they might say. They might show some frustration, too, tired of these incessant calls for “incrementalism” and “iterations”.  

Should that be the case, it’s probably the “elephant” pulling the “rider” along. In which case, there can be ways to still switch their thinking. Our authors will help through more insights tomorrow.

Image by Mike McKay from Flickr