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.”
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 and distinguished professor at the University of Michigan, 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.
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, or town clerks in New York State who marry people over videoconference) “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.”
Today, Weick’s paper is considered a landmark, not just because of its counter-intuitive strategies on how to improve society and organizations, but because those strategies are built on deep insights into human psychology. (The paper was published in a journal called American Psychologist.) “When the magnitude of problems is scaled upward in the interest of mobilizing action,” he argues, “the quality of thought and action declines, because processes such as frustration, arousal, and helplessness are activated.” The challenge for people and teams, Weick explains, is managing the tension between “stress” and “hardiness.”
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.”
Donald Berwick, cofounder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), and one of the world’s most foremost authorities on making positive change in a notoriously complex field, has his own twist on Weick’s insights about stress and hardiness. The job for change agents in healthcare, 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.”
Change initiatives built on small wins have another virtue: When things go bad, as they often do, failure leads to modest disappointments rather than catastrophic setbacks. In a paper published eight years after Weick’s case for the power of small wins, and in an obvious nod to that work, Sim B. Sitkin, a professor at Duke University, made the case for a “strategy of small losses.” The problem for leaders who think too big and aim to move too quickly, Sitkin argued, is that their rank-and-file colleagues also see the possibility of missteps and mistakes, and understand the stakes when things go wrong. So people often fail to act, rather than act and fail, since they are less likely to suffer the consequences of bold moves they did not take.
There is “an inherent risk asymmetry” in organizations and societies, Sitkin argues. “Problems that result from taking risks often lead to punishment,” whereas “problems that result from the avoidance of risky action are rarely traced to individuals and less often lead to punishment.” A more sustainable model of change, Sitkin argues, 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.