Personal Finance

Small steps make a big difference

steps-pic

A man with hands at the back looking at cogwheels drawn on a concrete wall. Side view. Concrete background. Concept of creating a mechanism.

Summary

  • When you focus on the first 15 percent of the process and get it right, almost Zen-like perfect, you set the pathway to achieve 85 percent of the desired outcome.
  • Tiny movements, seemingly insignificant shifts in thoughts and actions, all add up, to have a larger impact.
  • Leading-edge organisations have moved from the old year-end appraisals to a weekly check-in approach.

Can a butterfly moving its wings in a garden in Mombasa, have the power to influence weather conditions on the island of Madagascar? Tiny, seemingly insignificant shifts can make all the difference in success in the Kenyan business landscape.

Edward Lorenz was a research meteorologist at MIT in 1961 who was writing computer programmes, creating algorithms that represented weather patterns. Normally, when Lorenz keyed in the numbers he would use 6 significant digits, for instance, 123456 but on this day in 1961 he was in a bit of a rush, and input just three digits 123 assuming that such a small difference in a fraction of thousands would have no real impact. Wrong.

The slight change made a big difference in the output. Today we call this the butterfly effect, a more formal name is the ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Edward Deming, the American statistician who was one of the fathers of the total quality management movement that helped Japan become a manufacturing world leader, realised the same thing. Small things matter, particularly at the beginning.

For Deming, every process had a beginning and an end. He found that when you focus on the first 15 percent of the process and get it right, almost Zen-like perfect, you set the pathway to achieve 85 percent of the desired outcome.

Tiny movements, seemingly insignificant shifts in thoughts and actions, all add up, to have a larger impact. “God is in the details,” said the German-born architect Mies van der Rohe, one of the most significant architects of the 20th century who understood ‘more is less'.

Creating momentum

How do you keep managers and staff motivated, so that they can both be productive, and come up with that bordering on innovative breakthrough, that makes all the difference? What makes for a good day at work, what makes for a bad day? Chances are that when you feel you have a sense of momentum, making small steps forward, that you have an inner feeling of satisfaction, contentment.

This is the progress principle. “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.

Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform” write Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

Progress is often thought to be how great it feels to achieve a long-term goal, or experience a significant breakthrough. Big wins are great, but the truth is that they are relatively rare.

Frequent check-ins

How do you get the best out of people? Ideally, a manager can have staff see him or her as a resource for team members, rather than being seen as a ‘constantly looking over the shoulder’, hovering micromanager. What works is frequent ‘check-ins’ as opposed to managers viewed as ‘checking up’ on staff.

Traditional performance appraisals every six months, or at year-end, are a bit like a Telex machine that is both obsolete and counterproductive – in the age of the smartphone. Leading-edge organisations have moved from the old year-end appraisals to a weekly check-in approach. Want to know how to guide, assess and motivate your staff?

It’s simple. Keep in close touch and just plain talk to them about what is working and what is not. Think about it, a parent does not sit down and talk with their child every six months to praise or discipline them. Nor, does an athlete’s coach touch base with them many months later, after the big event. It’s critical for managers to stay in touch on a more real-time weekly basis.

Small tweaking adjustments

Small fine-tuning makes all the difference. An NGO operating a youth entrepreneur training programme thought it had all the elements in place in, for instance, skills training, creating an incubation setting, and access to credit. Somehow the results weren’t coming through in creating successful start-ups that lasted and in job creation. Then they made a small tweak to the approach, added a weekly coaching element, with mentors drawn from the local business community and everything shifted for the better.

The wicked problem of our time, climate change is a prime example of small incremental changes having a profound impact. Increased burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide gas creating a “greenhouse effect” warming the earth’s atmosphere, changing disruptive weather patterns. Combined land and ocean temperatures have increased at an average rate of 0.08 degrees Celsius per decade since 1880. However, the average rate of increase since 1981 has been 0.18°C more than twice that rate.

So how does one identify those small butterfly wing changes, that can make all the difference? One suggestion would be to take a number of routes. Sit down with staff and brainstorm, map things out on a problem-solving logic tree, make things visual, our brains understand pictures best.

Out of all the possible options, focus on a few in an 80/20 like way. [80 percent of the impact, the results, is going to come from 20 percent of the possibilities.] Simplify and zero in on the best candidates, the areas where small changes will have a significant impact. Then run a number of low-risk quick experiments, testing to see if you make A, B and C changes what the real-time impact is.

Often answer’s don’t come to managers at work, sitting in a cubicle, or in the home office on a Zoom call. Put the butterfly wing problem in your mind, and just sleep on it, let your unconscious grey matter beaver away at finding a solution. Does this sound crazy?

When James Watson and Francis Crick were aiming to discover the structure of DNA, they went through a roller coaster of emotions, with both progress and setbacks, till they eventually identified the double helix structure that earned them the Nobel Prize. The breakthrough occurred when they accidentally saw the helix structure in a child’s toy.

All we have is the present moment, taking those two small steps forward, one step back, feeling a sense of momentum at work. Strange thing is that the magical butterfly breakthroughs, invariably come after a disappointing breakdown. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Every time you wink the stars move.”