Boardmember Blog: Think Small for Big Change

Think Small for Big Change

Org Designers know that big change programs are usually less effective than many small, self-organizing actions for producing significant and sustained change (just think of the major change efforts you’ve known to achieve little or no impact). The relationships and connections between the parts of an organizational system generate second and third order effects that can actually create the seismic changes. This suggests that multiple, small “tweaks” in a system can have a bigger and longer-lasting impact than comprehensive, centrally driven solutions.

Sometimes, a more effective strategy is to encourage clients to look for “those small actions under your control, you could take today, that could have a big impact tomorrow morning.” Focusing on small changes gives us freedom to try many things instead of putting all of our resources into a few large programs to which we then become emotionally and financially wedded. We now seek out pockets of energy in the organization that are eager for a change and help these individuals expand their energy into other pockets.

For example, a large hospital pursued very large and costly strategies to roll out staff training programs on key practices associated with infection control (such as hand-washing) yet the incidence rate of transmission still remained high. The hospital then pursued an approach that involved engaging staff across functional and role boundaries in discovering small changes they could make in their own disciplines. The result was that hundreds of people developed hundreds of small solutions. People who weren’t previously involved with infection control got involved. Drivers of the medical vans pointed out that they did not have a convenient way to wash their hands, which resulted in gel dispensers being installed in their vans. The pastoral care staff suggested ways to make sure that the bibles they carried from room to room did not serve as vectors for transmission. Physical therapy staff scheduled special equipment cleaning between patients. These were small, inexpensive solutions that came from the staff themselves and made a big impact on a problem that the doctors and nurses could not solve alone.

Another example . . . A large, urban university experienced serious problems with vandalism that affected people’s sense of security. Investments in system-wide community awareness initiatives and large scale law enforcement efforts failed to make a dent. But when they stopped trying to find the “one big thing” that would transform the situation and instead decided to try to “light a lot of small fires” they started seeing a significant difference. One wall that had been a frequent target was designated as a graffiti mural. They improved the lighting in one dark stairway. They started some programs that brought neighborhood teens on campus to use athletic facilities. They established some mechanisms where anyone could propose and get support for a small experiment. The anti-vandalism initiative was no longer the flavor of the month but became, instead, an ongoing effort to build on many, small changes to get the big change they needed.

The Butterfly Effect is a concept from complexity science that teaches us that small changes can make big differences. The possibly apocryphal reference is to the notion that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Africa can impact storm conditions in North America. What are the small interventions that could make big differences for our clients before the long journey of a large-scale change effort is complete?

What could be your butterfly effect?

Lisa Kimball, ODF Board Member

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