Updated: Jul 10
Small really is beautiful!
Faced with complex, messy and seemingly unachievable changes, it’s the small steps and wins that help people through to believing that something big is possible.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in big challenging change. It’s complex, exciting, needs lots of time, resources, analysis, design, planning and often gets the attention of senior leaders.
We’re trained to focus on the big things.
We’ve seen the big shiny object focus many times. One example was a large scale change across a number of organisations, a systematic shift from hospital services to community based services. A desirable vision had been set out and public commitments made by leaders from all organisations. The next stage was starting to design and implement the changes that would deliver the vision and many benefits. Work began and within a short period of time the shape of how this could be achieved was developed. However, rather than start implementing small steps, energy was directed towards analysis and specific design in order to create and present a business case to the organisations for approval. 18 months later when this emerged, people had disengaged, were bored, had lost heart, key people had moved on, and many were daunted by the scale of the business case. This all resulted in lost impetus, energy and ultimately limited progress.
Transformation = hundreds of small steps.
Every big transformation we’ve investigated has been made up of hundreds of smaller changes. Recently, we found another example. It featured amazing results in an area that we were working on with another client. Deeper analysis revealed that a number of pre-existing enabling services and associated culture had been built up over a decade or so. Hundreds of small steps had taken place over time, and when some modest changes were added, the results looked amazing.
Increased pace below the radar.
Another example of the impact of small steps was in some partnership work. The partnership had developed an emotive vision, however the business case to finding funding for a new modern building had become stuck in public sector politics. Meanwhile, some frontline managers were taking the initiative and working with staff across the two Neonatal services. They understood and were committed to the end vision, to bring together two existing services into one, and were taking small steps towards it. Everyone else was concentrating on and consuming energy on the big funding challenge. Through lots of small steps they had made significant progress in changing culture and starting to bring the best of the two different ways of working together. What’s more the pace of the small steps was beginning to increase.
It's part of our approach.
Our approach, similar to the previous example, is to enable or support large numbers of smaller changes, rather than only focusing on big changes. In many cases the results have been incredible, not just for credibility but for the momentum of the overall work.
When we started taking the small steps approach the impact surprised us. In an early change programme where we implemented this, an organisation with significant challenges, they responded really positively, with strong early outcomes and executive support resulting. This programme of change bucked the general trend of poorly performing change initiatives and became a key part of positive messaging from executives managing a difficult turnaround.
What we've learned.
Taking small steps hasn’t always been easy and we’ve learned a lot along the way, both what’s worked and what hasn’t. Key learning has been;
stay below the executive radar and design governance to devolve responsibility so senior managers are enablers rather than decisions makers,
communicate the small wins so regularly it almost feels uncomfortable and make them relevant to each audience,
communicate small wins as relatable stories when possible,
focus on the outcomes of changes being made, rather than measuring progress through plans,
ensure the team understand the different expectations and connections between the longer term work and small wins, so as to reduce confusion,
build team capabilities to unlock rapid change in the small wins, for example, coaching the team, prototyping, using iterative/agile processes,
develop a desirable vision early and ensure that it resonates at an operational level, something that people can connect the small wins to.
In addition to the benefits from the actual small wins, we’ve found engagement has been easier, the pace feels uncomfortable (in the right way!), we have a happier and motivated team, and it’s been more straightforward to gain senior support for the bigger steps. What’s not to like?
A few years ago we thought small changes weren’t challenging and a bit boring, now we actively work through how to incorporate them into all our work.
Sweat the small stuff, you won’t regret it.