Blog Article

The small bang theory

Posted by Douglas Ferguson

Douglas Ferguson

Big, bold change is the recipe for success, right? Even better, bigger and faster changes. That would be fine if it were possible or true for most of us mere mortals.

Yes, big change can, does and should occur. However, it’s usually at the beginning of an industry or an era. For the rest of us who aren’t privileged to be there at the beginning there needs to be an alternative to going big or going home.

All organizations and peoples want to grow. Growth is good and innovation fueled growth is even better. Corporate culture, leadership styles, organizational structures, skills and incentive systems need to be all singing and dancing together to create a wonderfully innovative place.

Well, that’s just plain frustrating, and more importantly, very difficult if not impossible to do. Very few places, if any, can line all the pieces up so that – poof – the world is now a neater, more fun and creative place.

Relax, you are ok. As it turns out, plodding along has its place and is actually an effective strategy. Innovation is often the result of slogging away. Slogging away in teams, on your own, against deadlines with limited resources, bumping up against resistance.

Southwest Airlines – a paragon of innovation in the airline industry – triumphs because it does many, many things well, and differently. When it started it only flew 737s, to reduce pilot training costs, spare parts requirements and complexity of crew scheduling. It minimized reservation system expense by general boarding and relieved passenger resistance by hiring wonderfully humorous employees. The list goes on and on. As a result, the employees go above and beyond their formal job description. I once saw a pilot clean the windshield of his cockpit – from the outside.

Innovation blog2

For most leaders, persistence by chipping away on a daily basis wins the day. One of my clients is turning around a global enterprise by making the lives of its customers ever so slightly better one day at a time. Products are regularly refreshed, service calls proactively addressed and value clearly communicated. Not big stuff, but little stuff well done.

But, it’s in the small changes, those changes people barely notice, which accumulate over time. Those are the changes that make the big difference. In weight loss, dropping a pound a month for a year is often more successful than trying to shed a pound a week for three months. Much the same with innovation. Small and steady wins the race. At the end of the year the changes accumulate, and stick.

Why is this the case? Change is hard and innovation is all about changing. Changing a product, a price or a process. All of these bump up against people who have different expectations and resist. When something doesn’t meet an expectation, we immediately assume something is amiss. It’s only when expectations are exceeded that we joyfully give in and change. In most cases if something is different it must be wrong and therefore should be resisted.

However, if the difference is small, hardly noticeable, then resistance has better things to guard against. Pretty soon the minor change becomes the new normal. Done often enough, changing minor things on a regular basis becomes the new normal. Expectation is now that there will always be some small thing changing and getting better.

While innovation can, and often does, mean there are big changes, it’s often the many smaller changes which make the biggest difference.

What’s a situation where you have been able to slowly and steadily turn the tide by making slight adjustments on the tiller?

 

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1 Comment

  1. Gwen Taylor

    Gwen Taylor

    April 1, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    What a wonderful piece, that makes daunting terms like “transformation” and “innovation” seem–dare I say–almost managable! It makes me think of a claim made by Chip and Dan Heath in their inspired book, “Switch”: “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.”

    Granted, many organizational issues we run up against are the result of broken systems, structures and processes that are pretty complicated to fix–operating models that are unfit for purpose, decision making frameworks that are muddled, strategies that are insufficiently granular to implement. But other issues that, at first, seem impossible to solve can acutally be addressed (at least in part) by simple behavioral adjustments. For example, simple gestures of care and concerns on the part of senior leaders can go a long way in addressing a lack of trust between leaders the rank and file. A few words of feedback can help an employee make meaningful performance improvements. A little bit of recognition from a manager can inspire a lot of discretionary effort (but conversely, one minor negative interaction can stifle innovative thinking for days).

    And don’t forget that small tweaks can be made in the work environment, in order to make those behavioral adjustments that much easier (since behavior is, after all, a function of a person in a situation). Warehouse safety can be improved by the simple addition of a few trash cans. People eat less when you give them a smaller plate. Surgery can become safer through the use of checklists–yes, checklists!

    Doug Ferguson, then, is right–while big bangs get a lot of attention, many improvements to organizations–and society more broadly–are made through a series of small bangs that, in aggregate, produce big change.

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