The Power of Small

How leaders can focus on small steps that lead to lasting change in public institutions

"Little by little, a little becomes a lot.”

Tanzanian Proverb

As a leader who has spent over 40 years contributing to social change efforts, I know firsthand the pressure that leaders face when addressing complex issues – such as poverty, unemployment, and child welfare. Over my career I spent much of my time leading big, complex strategies. But too often, I witnessed that these large-scale efforts typically hit roadblocks or failed to create lasting impact. How come?

I’ve seen this struggle up close through our work at Civilla. Public-serving institutions operate within tight constraints and face limited resources, making it challenging to implement large-scale strategies effectively. However, we’ve observed a powerful yet often overlooked strategy for creating meaningful change: starting small.

Starting small recognizes that simple beginnings can lead to achieving a much larger vision. It understands that significant change often happens through a series of smaller steps, rather than grand gestures. Starting small honors the power of gradual evolution over sudden revolution.

Small Actions with Big Impact

When I reflect on many major social changes over the decades, I see a common thread—many of them started with small actions that grew into larger movements.

Take, for instance, the Civil Rights movement in the United States. It was ignited by a seemingly simple act of resistance when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955. This act was part of a coordinated strategic plan by civil rights activists. Rosa Parks' arrest and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott captured the nation's attention. The photograph of Parks being fingerprinted spread across newspapers, catalyzing a movement that challenged racial segregation and discrimination.

Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955

Similarly, the modern Environmental Movement was sparked, in part, by Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book "Silent Spring," published in 1962. The book exposed the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and human health, creating widespread concern and activism. The movement gained further momentum in 1968 when Apollo 8 astronauts captured the iconic "Earthrise" photograph, depicting Earth from space. This image provided a new perspective on our planet and contributed to growing environmental consciousness.

Earthrise by Apollo 8 December 24, 1968

It’s not just social movements where small actions matter. Nature itself teaches us this lesson.

Consider coral reefs, vital ecosystems that start from tiny coral polyps attaching themselves to rocks. Over time, these polyps grow into expansive reefs that span thousands of miles, showcasing the power of small beginnings.

These examples underscore the potential of starting small. Each individual action, while modest at first, has the power to bring about wider change.

Why Start Small?

When it comes to sparking change within institutions, starting small carries a number of benefits for leaders:

  1. Risk Reduction: Starting small means lower stakes and higher learning potential. Because fewer people are impacted by the change initially, teams are able to experiment without major risks. This paves the way for scaling solutions up with confidence.

  2. Adaptability: Large launches can be slow to adapt. Small steps, on the other hand, enable rapid adaptation. Quick adjustments based on real-time feedback ensure change efforts stay aligned with evolving needs.

  3. Confidence and Ownership: Breaking down complex challenges into manageable pieces fosters ownership and accountability among staff and stakeholders. Everyone sees their contribution, creating a sense of shared success.

One ‘Small’ Case Study

At Civilla, we have experienced the power of starting small. Our journey began with a seemingly simple artifact in the public benefit process - Michigan’s assistance application.

This application was the gateway to essential benefits like food and healthcare for over 2.5 million people each year. Yet it was overly long and complex – clocking in at 42 pages, 1000 questions, and over 18,000 words.

Through a human-centered approach, we worked side-by-side with residents and caseworkers to reimagine the application. In partnership with the State, the application became 80% shorter and could be processed in nearly half the time. This success built confidence among Michigan leaders to redesign other parts of the benefits process – including renewals, the online portal, and underlying policies and processes. In time, the state has implemented improvements across the full benefits journey, showcasing the transformative power of starting small.

In the span of my career before Civilla, I never would have anticipated that the best way to impact public benefits delivery was to begin with a paper application. In many ways, I am embarrassed it took me so long to see the power of starting small.

Decades later, I wish I had asked myself these questions when faced with large-scale change efforts:

  1. Within the challenge I’m facing, what is the smallest gateway into the wider system? Start there.

  2. Who is the user and what is their need? Spend time listening.

  3. What is the smallest, fastest, and most impactful first step that I can take? Do that.

  4. How can I lift up the voices of end users to move hearts and minds? Lean on storytelling.

Not every problem can be addressed through the lens of starting small, but many can. Where could you begin with a small step today?

- Michael J. Brennan