Disruption Reflections: Small Wins Matter

There are many lessons we can garner from COVID-19. And many myths dispelled. It is tempting, during a crisis as severe as the Covid-19 pandemic, for leaders to respond to big problems with bold moves — a radical strategy to reinvent a struggling business, a long-term shift to virtual teams and long-distance collaboration. Indeed, so much of the expert commentary on Covid-19 argues, as did a recent white paper from McKinsey & Company, that we are on the brink of a “next normal” that will “witness a dramatic restructuring of the economic and social order in which business and society have traditionally operated.”

When we went into the lockdown, my utmost respect went out to the education sector. Often maligned, the industry turned on a dime. With danger ever present, teachers juggled face to face whilst also creating an online environment in parallel. Momentum begets momentum and a potentially catastrophic period was averted by educators dedicated to “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Maybe the ‘next normal’ will be respect for frontline employees such as teachers and nurses.

I’d argue that even if we do face a “next normal,” the best way for leaders to move forward isn’t by making sweeping changes but rather by embracing a gradual, improvisational, quietly persistent approach to change that Karl E. Weick, the organizational theorist, famously called “small wins.” Weick is an intellectual giant; over the past 50 years, his concepts such as loose coupling, mindfulness, and sensemaking have shaped our understanding of organizational life. But perhaps his most powerful insight into to how we can navigate treacherous times is to remind us that when it comes to leading change, less is usually more. Often when our leaders have got it right in recent times is when they have ‘under promised and over delivered’.

In a classic paper published in 1984, Weick bemoaned the failure of social scientists like himself to understand and solve social problems. “The massive scale on which social problems are conceived often precludes innovation action,” he warned. “People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.” Ironically, he concludes, “People can’t solve problems unless they think they aren’t problems.”

Hence the power of small wins. Many scholars have drawn on Weick’s insights as they’ve developed their own arguments about the best ways to work, lead, and make change. Perhaps most notably, nearly a decade ago, in their influential book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer showed how small wins could “ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work.” As they explained, “even events that people thought were unimportant had powerful effects on inner work life.”

But it’s when things get really bad that small wins become especially vital. Weick defines a small win as “a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.” On its own, one small win (say, restaurants that sell groceries as well as take-out meals) “may seem unimportant,” he concedes. But “a series of wins” begins to reveal “a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals.” Small wins “are compact, tangible, upbeat, [and] noncontroversial.” Moreover, since “small wins are dispersed, they are harder to find and attack than is one big win that is noticed by everyone…who defines the world as a zero-sum game.”

I have been amazed by the response of the restaurant industry. Facing decimation with an uncertain return, restaurateurs such as Shane Delia launched initiatives that have kept the brand ever present and options for future income streams. Shane in fact launched a delivery service (Maha Go) and an upmarket service that incorporates the who’s who of the food scene with Providor.

Any effort to change a company or improve a community creates stress, a certain amount of which leads to commitment, action, and what Weick calls “arousal.” But too much of anything is a bad thing: “Highly aroused people find it difficult to learn a novel response, to brainstorm, to concentrate, to resist old categories.” But just the right level of stress, Weick went on, the level of stress generated by the search for small wins, creates a psychological hardiness that allows leaders and their allies to draw on “imagination, knowledge, skill, and choice.” The job for change agents, he has said, is to “electrify” their colleagues while being careful not to “electrocute” them — that is, to charge them up about moving forward without short-circuiting their resolve in the face of setbacks and disappointments.

Bing Gordon, the renowned video-game developer and venture capitalist, has made the same argument about big technology challenges. He calls it “smallifying.” At Electronic Arts, where Gordon was chief creative officer, teams that worked on complex, long-term projects “were inefficient and took unnecessary paths,” explained Peter Sims in his book, Little Bets“However, when tasks were broken down into particular problems to be solved, which were manageable and could be tackled within one or two weeks, developers were more creative and effective.”

A more sustainable model of change, is to embrace opportunities for “intelligent failures” — missteps and mistakes that provide “small doses of experience to discover uncertainties unpredictable in advance.”

This is by no means an argument against passion, commitment, or intensity — the emotions that move people and fuel innovation. As John Gardner, the Stanford University scholar of leadership and change, has written, “The renewal of societies and organizations can go forward only if someone cares. Apathetic men and women accomplish nothing. Those who believe in nothing change nothing for the better.”

But there is a difference between caring deeply and moving recklessly, between facing up to dire problems and taking unwise risks. Amidst this big crisis, leaders should give themselves permission to focus on the power of small wins.

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