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Avoid the idea of ‘thinking big’ and start thinking about ‘The Power of Small’

Everyone’s way of working in digital and data is unique, but one thing people struggle to understand more than anything else is ‘The Power of Small’.

“Go small or go home”, “If you want to go big, stop planning big” – things I doubt were ever said in the big-shot corporate world.

Yet teams who are “forced” to think small – by circumstances of time or budget – can often establish excellent working patterns, with benefits which scale and can adapt better than “sticking to the grand plan”.

Some of the trouble lies in confusing big thinking with planning big, but the challenge is wider than that.

‘The Power of Small’ is often counterintuitive. Planners and managers love grand plans – perhaps it gives them status, or maybe it’s what is needed to get buy-in. There was a time when protracted, detailed planning was needed, but whatever the motivation, people love big plans with overwhelming amounts of detail. Words like ‘comprehensive’ and ‘ambitious’ seem to convince us that more will get done, and every eventuality will be covered.

In truth, big detailed plans often address the wrong things and are hard to understand. This complexity makes it devilishly difficult for anyone to spot where they may go wrong.

What drives the desire to achieve big?

Despite this, many businesses and organisations want to achieve “big” – or are coping with it already. The economics make sense – large operations can be efficient and effective.

The real challenge lies in getting there from small, or changing something which is already big and may resist change. In both cases, there is an unmissable opportunity to act small.

How do we implement this magic mix? While every piece of work in digital and data transformation has unique circumstances, at Transform we always apply the scientific method. We develop robust hypotheses that target the big picture and impact we want, then use real-world testing of small iterations to check their accuracy.

We use three catalysts in every case, all of which are underpinned by a culture of acting small:

  • Collaboration

  • Iteration

  • Feedback

We’ve found that transformation is best when each element is used at the same scale to explore the change that’s needed and reactions to change as they happen. Here’s how:

Culture eats Agile for breakfast

If we don’t engage hearts and minds with our vision, change is something going on “over there” – especially among “everyone else”.

To prevent a big transformation becoming prone to death by “a thousand small rejections”, you need a human-scale sense of engagement. We do this by collaborating with stakeholders.

Collaboration – we’re all smarter than any one of us

“Why can’t everyone just work together?” people frequently ask. Many views and many voices can make it hard to agree. This gets worse when people are given vague aims for collaboration – or feel they’re expected to agree too quickly on big issues.

Despite what we hope, early collaboration is a negotiation. You must build consensus from a small base. We ask, “what’s the smallest change we can agree to make to prove (or disprove) the value of this direction of travel?”.

Turning small wins on consensus into real progress through iterative change

How can small iterations lead to big transformations?

Agile development techniques have become the method of choice for most digital implementations. Agile can attract an off-putting evangelical fervour among practitioners. Team members talk of Sprints, Story Points and Velocity. These are not really the beating heart of Agile – central is iteration.

Engaging with Agile and the Power of Small is a great way to engage an organisation before they are asked to buy into a big change or its benefits, then deliver things in small but complete packages of working “things” – features, services, prototypes.

This way, each change can be seen and understood at a glance – or at least more easily than a “big reveal” at the end.

Frequent feedback in small doses

How do we confirm we’re on track? With a big plan, this would be by checking progress against the plan and realigning to “the plan”.

Working small, we check our direction to improve and fine-tune our course. Why? Because we now know a lot more than we did when we started. We test our change or new feature with users, clients or stakeholders.

While some people may have extensive views, not everyone may be able to or want to say so much. So try to generate small, frequent feedback.

So, why small?

It’s true you need to do a lot of small things to solve difficult problems or create substantial value. To cope with dramatic change in a turbulent world, leaders often do need a big vision which excites and unites teams and stakeholders.

But small plans of action at human scale are easy to understand, easy to buy into and to track progress through – in frequent, small reviews. They test direction with lower risk, and at each step, reward everyone quickly. This drives productivity.

The scale of both plans and actions can gradually increase to maintain productivity as we increase the pace of delivery.

We know that big vision and small actions are compatible. Why small? Because you’ll see and prove the results more easily.

  • Visibility: Small gets things done earlier – transparency helps everyone.

  • Motivation: Small motivates and rewards success – implementing small, manageable actions improves productivity.

  • Better outcome: Planning and doing in smaller chunks makes adjustment easier.

If you do things in small chunks, then “overhead” has to be small too. Tracking, progress reporting and filing need to be “one click”.

Tools like Jira and Slack support Agile methods by reducing management overhead and delay – pushing empowerment down to smaller teams. Cloud infrastructure allows you to start small – dipping your toes in the water of new technologies and tools – but scaling later.

The bottom line of “why small?” Because we can – especially in digital and data.

Unsure where to start? Look at the following...

  • Freebies – look into using existing platforms, often free at first, to start small.

  • Empower – look at tools which devolve management to smaller, more local teams.

  • Fast feedback – embrace fast feedback or small-scale test – because you can!

The most common resistance which applies to thinking small is, “We’ve never done it this way before, so why?” Because before, we couldn’t.

Now you can and you should give it a try – starting small, of course!

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