The amazing impact of thinking small

Juliet General

As an entrepreneur, everyone urges you to “think big”. Tell anyone you’re starting your own business and you’ll be hounded by gurus extolling you to earn 6 figures in 6 months (using their magic formula). Before you make your first sale you should be focusing on your first million and from there it’s only a matter of a year or two before you become a billionaire. “Go big or go home!” is the constant rally cry that echoes across social media.

Social entrepreneurs are even more ambitious. After all, we want to change the world. Now. Because tomorrow may be too late. We don’t want to help a couple of people out of poverty, we want to eradicate poverty now. We don’t want to protect a few individual rhinos, we want to protect an entire species. We don’t want to save penguins, we want to save the entire 14,000km2 Antarctic continent. (Me? Guilty as charged. I can’t wait to empower half the planet.) Trouble is if you set out to millions – or billions – of lives, starting out with a small prototype action or product or service that might change one seems so tiny and insignificant.

And yet we all know that a fundamental part of designing an international development project is pilot testing. And the whole lean enterprise movement is based on breaking down a world changing innovation into the minimum viable product to validate in the market.

But oh, how frustrating it can feel to have to take things slow, to learn to walk and crawl before attempting an Ironman race. I want my clients to be free, to soar to great heights, to change their lives and start an unstoppable wave of social change. From the starting blocks, the finishing line looks centuries away.

Take comfort, my impatient colleagues – there are many benefits and much joy in starting small. In taking those baby steps to start. At least until you have a solid foundation, and a proven solution in place.

If you try to change the world in a week from scratch, you may find – speaking from experience here – that it’s a teensy bit overwhelming. Even the most ambitious among us can understand that changing lives or the universe in a week is quite a stretch for mere mortals. The thing is, if you make your goals and vision so lofty and overwhelming, it makes it difficult to know where to start. And that means you might have to think about it for a year or two, and never get round to actually starting. If its too big, its easy to procrastinate, or be overcome with fear and doubt. And give up. Smaller steps are more achievable. Besides, odds are that your first idea – or your first 10 ideas or even 1000 – may fail. So the faster they do, the faster you can find what works.

If you are not tightly focused on one specific element of a problem that you want to solve you may find you get derailed and spin off in another direction. Narrow down the goal you want to achieve or problem you want to solve, so that you can find the simplest, cheapest, most effective solution to one component in a multi-layered problem.

Take the thorny issue of educational reform. The challenge, how to help rural children in China improve their school performance. Conventional international development interventions might lean towards adopting a holistic approach to this complex issues. For example, you could give teachers refresher training sessions on how to engage with under-achievers, or conduct social change programmes to work with parents, engage peer tutors to help after hours, or change the national curriculum or education system – approaches that involve considerable time, expense and bureaucratic processes before they can start to show impact. But the researchers in this example discovered that one underlying cause of poor results was that children didn’t have prescription glasses and couldn’t actually see the blackboard. They tested the eyesight of children in a rural community of china and provided $10 prescription glasses to one group of children who needed them, and left a control group as they were before. And guess what, a year later, the group with glasses had test scores of 25-50% higher than the control group (1). Sometimes it’s the simplest, easiest, more cost effective ways that yield big results. So think small, be curious, explore the issue you are trying to solve. Test out small interventions. Above all get and keep going. And remember that thinking – and acting – on one small, easy to implement and measure component can change the world faster, more effectively and more efficiently than some of those big thinking, multi layered and complex development projects.

Think small, act small, and KEEP GOING. Success could be closer than you think.

1) Glewwe, Paul, Park, Albert and Meng Zhao, June 2014: “A Better Vision for development: Eyeglasses and Academic Performance in Rural Primary Schools in China.”

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