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.”
Read the full article at Harvard Business Review.