Small Steps Drive Significant Change

Too many leaders make the natural assumption that big change requires big steps. Small steps can be more sustainable and effective.

Last week, I had the pleasure of working with a national retailer whose leadership team has established some bold goals to transform the culture and reinvent the customer experience. It’s a heady vision that, given their size and structure, will likely prove to be ambitious. Yet, given the distance this organization must travel and the importance of the initiative, it's not calling in the brass band, turning the organizational chart on its head or asking associates to ceremonially sign on to the new mission. Rather than taking big steps in the direction of the goals, the organization is consciously and deliberately taking small steps. The first step leaders have chosen to take is modest and simple: They’re preparing store managers to have 10-minute conversations with their associates. That’s it. And they are banking on those small steps driving significant change. The Small Step Advantage The natural assumption that too many leaders make is that big change requires big steps. And certainly that’s one strategy. But the history books and business journals are littered with stories of audacious, big, visible change efforts that failed miserably despite elegant execution and colossal investments of time and money. Small steps are a powerful and effective alternative for a variety of reasons.
  • They are doable. Leaders and employees alike operate in a time-starved environment where every minute matters. Give them a 17-step process, and it will likely be discarded before step 4 is even read. Undoable, unrealistic requests breed ambivalence and resistance, which create their own inertia to change. But suggest a small action that can be embedded into the workflow, and implementation is far more likely.
  • They are sustainable. Most change requires a long-term commitment on the part of management and employees alike. Genuine transformation doesn’t occur quickly. As a result, everyone must pace themselves. Big requests, extensive demands and complicated actions may be implemented briefly; but people quickly tire, burn out and turn their attention to other matters. By contrast, smaller, incremental steps can be maintained over time, enhancing the chances of ultimate success.
  • Missing one or taking a break isn’t a showstopper. When what’s expected of others to support change is substantial, it becomes a bigger piece of the puzzle. Lose a few pieces, and the picture becomes much less clear. But when more people are contributing in smaller ways over time, missing pieces create less significant gaps.
  • The effect is cumulative and reinforcing. Small steps beget more small steps, with each building on the other. When leaders or employees take action and experience positive results, the satisfaction creates an upward energy spiral and encourages more of the same behavior. Over time, these small steps can contribute to a self-reinforcing tornado of commitment and action in support of the desired change.
So the next time you’re faced with implementing an ambitious change, challenge the natural inclination to think big. Instead, think small – doable and sustainable. And consider: How do you eat an elephant? One (small) bite at a time.

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