Small moves, smartly made

Small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion – that’s the sub-title of my last book, The Power of Pull. It’s been a key theme of my work for decades, but it’s coming back to bite me.

I find that a lot of people have grabbed on to this message to justify incremental actions with limited funding, while holding out the expectation that they will potentially lead to big results. I’ve long been a skeptic of massive top down programs – whether it’s companies, governments or any other institutions. But let me also say that I am deeply skeptical about incrementalism and lots of small moves.

Many people glide over the phrase “smartly made” in the sub-title, but that’s what enables small moves to set big things in motion, rather than just consuming time and effort with minimum results. Let me try to unpack what that means to me. Unpacking smartly made
“Smartly made” isn’t easy, it’s really, really hard. It’s all about understanding context and dynamics and being relentlessly focused on how to achieve the most impact with the least investment of time and resources.

I’ve developed at much greater length the increasing importance of context in the world that is evolving around us. Understanding context has always been important but, for reasons that I discuss elsewhere, it’s becoming more and more critical for impact given the forces that are re-shaping our global economy and society.

Understanding context has always been challenging, but it’s becoming more challenging on two fronts. It used to be that we could narrowly define context and focus on a small slice of the world around us – whether it’s a specific industry, geographic market or customer segment. In a world shaped by the Big Shift, everything is becoming more and more connected, so those small slices are being deeply shaped by broader forces.

A key part of “smartly made” is investing the time and effort required to look ahead and understand the dynamics of the broader contexts evolving around us. Of course, we can get consumed by that exercise as well.

In more stable times, we were also able to take a snapshot of our context at a given point in time and focus on understanding that snapshot. No longer. Our context is rapidly evolving, shaped by the exponential changes of the Big Shift. If we just focus on the snapshot, we’re at serious risk of being blindsided. We need to “zoom out” and anticipate what the context could look like years, and even decades, down the road.

Another dimension of “smartly made” is making explicit choices based on this assessment of influence points and evolving context. Rather than just randomly or opportunistically pursuing small moves, the key is to invest the time and effort required to proactively choose the small moves that have the greatest potential for high impact. Don’t just react. Focus and anticipate, and be relentless in finding the most promising ways to achieve great impact with few resources.

Many of us are overwhelmed by this and shrink our horizons to just focus on small moves that respond to whatever is going on at the moment. While understandable, that’s not being smart. It’s a formula for failure as we spread ourselves more and more thinly across a lot of “small moves” that never get any critical mass of resource or attention. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, rather than reducing risk, portfolios of small moves can often be the highest risk approach of all.

So, another part of smartly made, is focusing on the context and dynamics that matter. Again, that’s not easy, but a key approach is to focus on identifying “influence points” – those locations that exist in all complex adaptive systems that have a disproportionate impact on the evolution of the broader system. If one can target and occupy one or more of those influence points, one can achieve far greater impact in broader systems than all the other participants, and do it with far less resources than might otherwise be required to achieve impact

Yet another aspect of “smartly made” is to move as quickly as possible to action so that one can begin to learn from the impact achieved. There’s a strong bias to action and to define early milestones that can help the participants to refine their approach to get even more impact.

Finally, and perhaps most challenging, another dimension of “smartly made” is a commitment to rapidly scale impact. The participants are relentless in challenging each other to get more and more impact – these are not just “experiments”, they’re the launch pad for something really, really big and there is a commitment to set really big things in motion and scale them rapidly. The goal is not just linear impact and improvement, but exponential impact driven by accelerating performance impact.

But we need to be smart about it. With so much change happening so quickly, we can also get easily distracted and lost in the events that compete for our daily attention. I love paradox – small moves are both necessary and dangerous. The key is whether they’re smartly made.

Those of you who have followed our work will likely recognize a close parallel between these various dimensions of “smartly made” and the business practices that we’ve identified as key to accelerating the performance of front line workgroups. Our belief is that everyone, everywhere should be trying to become more focused on the small moves that have the greatest potential to set big things in motion.

Bottom lineSo far, I’ve been talking about small moves, smartly made in an institutional setting. But, guess what? The same principles apply in our personal lives. We have an ability to have far greater impact and to achieve far more of our potential than would have ever been possible in the past. But the same principles apply – it can’t just be with random small moves. They need to be smartly made in the context of a deep understanding of the expanding opportunity that we all can address. And (some of you knew this was coming), we’ll be much more successful in setting these big things in motion if we are truly passionate about the opportunity – motivation is ultimately the key.
Rather than focusing on the small moves, we need to focus on the really big things that can be set in motion. We need to invest the time and effort to look ahead and look around in ways that can help us to see those really big opportunities and only then work back to identify the small moves we can make today and pursue aggressively to set those big things in motion. As we find those small moves, we need to be relentless in pursuing them and scaling them. Commitment is key.

Why is this such a big opportunity?
Here’s the point. In the Big Shift world we’re entering it’s possible to create much more value than would have been imaginable a few decades earlier, and to do it with far less resources and much faster than would have been possible a few decades earlier. That’s the expanding opportunity side of the Big Shift – exponential technology development and other, related forces are driving the growth of some businesses and other kinds of institutions at a rate that would have been unimaginable in our industrial era.

And the paradox is that there’s not just expanding opportunity. There’s also mounting performance pressure. If we don’t make small moves smartly, we’re likely to face diminishing returns until we’re finally squeezed out of our comfortable seats. So, this isn’t just an opportunity; it’s an imperative.


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