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Small change

Small change

If your organisation needed to save £300,000, would you think about making people redundant? Re-structuring? Business process re-engineering? Or would it occur to you to cancel the olives that you are serving with lunch?

An American Airlines flight attendant took the time to notice that many of her passengers did not eat the olives in their salads. She thought this observation might be useful and passed this observation up the chain of command. It was eventually discovered that the airline was charged by its food supplier for salads based on the number of items they contained. The cost for a salad with one to four items was less than a salad with five to eight items. And the uneaten olives, it turned out, were the fifth item in the American Airlines salad. When the airline dropped the olives and switched to a four-item salad, it saved five hundred thousand dollars a year.
 [from Robert E. Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the kaizen way, pp. 161-2.]

The assumption that big problems need big solutions is natural and beguiling. It gets our brains whirring and we come up with big ideas, grand schemes and elaborate plans. And those schemes can be intimidating – too big to implement. So we can all too easily end up doing nothing at all. Or we start to implement them, and it all becomes too hard, and we give up.

Another approach is to question our assumption instead: that big problems need big solutions.
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… There is a clear asymmetry between the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution. Big problem, small solution.
 [From Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: how to change things when change is hard, p. 44.]

 Big problems may need small solutions

So big problems may need small solutions. And more than likely, more than one small solution. And sometimes the first step towards a solution can be embarrassingly, trivially, or comically small. In One Small Step, Robert Maurer tells the story of someone who wanted to stop taking sugar in her tea. So the next time she went to add sugar to her tea, she gently removed one grain of sugar from the teaspoon. The  time after that it was two grains… Pretty soon she had cut out sugar altogether. Robert also writes about people who buy a chocolate bar but throw away the first square… then two squares…

These ridiculously small actions also have the benefit of being ridiculously easy. They’re so easy you can start straight away. That’s a huge advantage over elaborate schemes.

I wrote this blog post by setting myself the goal of working on it for just one minute a day. That made it fun – all I had to do was write a sentence or two, or find the right page number for the quote I was using. And most days I did a bit more than a minute – because I felt like it. In just 10 days I had a finished blog post – the first one I’ve written for nearly a year. This stuff works…

What is the biggest problem you are facing now? And what could be a very tiny step – embarrassingly small – that you could take right now to  move you in the right direction? Share your ideas in the comments below and I’ll respond!

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  • Bob Gore

    I think this is very true, but is so obvious and so simple that we (I) forget and overcomplicate things. Taking continued and sustained action in the form of baby steps leads to successful achievement or change. But I think this can overlook some other aspects of change. New action often needs new ideas and approaches . This requires a degree of insightful perception , preparedness and readiness for change equipped with motivation and an overall worthwhile realistic objective to aim for. Given these precursors the “small steps ” for change works.

    Well done on the post, it got me thinking!! When’s the next one?

    • Hi Bob! Thanks for that.

      I’m sure you’re right – that there are other aspects of change. I just wanted to pick out one aspect of change that has really interested me recently – the idea of taking small steps.

      The best book I’ve read lately is ‘Switch’ (I mentioned it in the post). That has more to say, including about some of the things that you mention as well. Some of the aspects of change you point to are about the state that a person needs to be in in order to take those small steps – they may need to be insightful, prepared, motivated etc.

      Whatever the next post is about it will be on some aspect of change. And I’ll publish it when I’ve done enough of those one-minute bursts. I think it’s likely to be much less than a year this time… 🙂

  • How interesting. This is just what I needed right now. Thanks! I’m facilitating a workshop for 40 leaders in August to help them work through and discuss their experience and knowledge around the topic of change and your focus on Small Change is inspiring. We tend to overcomplicate things. Sometimes small is beautiful. I just ordered “Switch” from Amazon. Keep up the good work, Stuart!

    • Hi Majken! How lovely – you needed something and the universe delivered 🙂 Glad it was helpful. And I hope you really enjoy ‘Switch’ – it is easily the best business book I have read in the past six months.

      If you don’t want to miss my next post, do please subscribe via the box on the top right of my website – I wouldn’t want you to miss out!