Change is scary, but growth requires change. Because of this leadership reality, there is no dearth of advice on leading change. One of the more novel ideas comes from organizational theorist Karl Weick. In a 1984 article, Weick laid out a method, the small wins strategy, for approaching large scale change by breaking it into smaller, easier to manage chunks. The strategy involves thinking about a big change as a set of much smaller, interrelated projects that, when completed, result in the big change. A key aspect of this strategy is that the small projects must be capable of bringing about concrete, moderately-important results. This characteristic means that gains made through each small project are preserved, even if later small projects are failures. Another important characteristic of small wins is that the projects don’t necessarily march smartly in a straight line toward the ultimate goal. Rather, the small wins projects are opportunistic, they move in the general direction of the larger goal but not in a carefully laid out, linear path.
Let’s look at a simple example. Many years ago I was a huge guy, closing in on 350 pounds. I knew I needed to do something about my weight. Diets didn’t work, mostly because they were hard to follow. The change required was too big. Losing significant weight was too big of a project. So I decided to try something simpler. I gave up potato chips, a small change. That’s all I tried to accomplish, no more chips. After some time I started walking, not every day, but a couple of days a week. Later, I decided that since my chip experiment was successful, I could give up fries. Since I was successful walking a few days a week, I added a few more walks. In less than a year, I lost well over 100 pounds. And it was EASY, no big deal, just a small win here and there. I didn’t plan out a year-long process of losing 100 pounds, I just looked for opportunities to move a little closer to becoming healthy. One of the great things about my small wins strategy was that even if all I did was give up chips, the health gains from that small change would still exist, even if I never went any further. The small wins approach led to big change (100 pounds big!), even though it didn’t feel like big change during the process.
Small wins projects act as mini-experiments that test theories and preconceived notions. For example, my potato chip project tested my ability to avoid a particular food. I not only confirmed my “I can avoid something” hypothesis, the experiment also taught me strategies that I could use for later small projects. In the context of work, the small wins experiments not only test theories, they also help you learn about resources that can be put to use in later projects. In addition, small wins projects often uncover previously hidden obstacles.
The small wins approach has other advantages. It’s easier to communicate and understand the consequences of small wins. If people understand early successes, it’s easier to build support for later projects. One source of resistance to change is fear over real or perceived disruptions. Because the small wins are small, they’re less disruptive, and are therefore less likely to give rise to resistance. Small wins projects also demand relatively little from those involved, which makes it easier to gain necessary cooperation.
The small wins strategy hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Give it a try, in your personal or professional life. You may just find a new, useful approach for bringing about big change, one small change at a time. FBN
By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.
The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to over 3,400 undergraduate and graduate students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. Send your comments and feedback on these columns to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.