Overcoming the ‘Start Small Underwhelm’

It was time to debrief the workshop with a co-facilitator. We had talked about the elements of motivation and how they showed up in the group’s work context. The group had discussed their big purpose. That was inspiring. We then talked about the need to take the first small step. My co-facilitator said something to the effect of, “To be honest, the small step conversation was a bit of a buzz kill.” We had just experienced the ‘Start Small Underwhelm.’ 

When we’re inspired by what’s possible it’s a little uninspiring to take the first, sometimes mundane, step. We want to knock it out of the park. Get a big budget and spend every bit of it. Be famous for a massive accomplishment. Starting big in an unpredictable environment can lead to catastrophic failure. Or unnecessary waste of resource. If there is a lot of uncertainty and moving parts, we must start with small steps.

What to do? How do we overcome the underwhelm of starting small? As I reflect on my journey, I’ve identified a few actions (not an exhaustive list) that have helped.

1. Link every small action back to the purpose. Purpose is the clear reason for why our team or organisation exists. It gives direction to decision making which results in increased motivation. We’ll talk about purpose being a direction of travel rather than a fixed future state in my next post. 

I journal every week day. Sometimes, I will write out how the work I’m doing now links to my purpose in work. This gives small tasks more meaning. In a team environment, we can write up a purpose statement (rewrite this every 6 months or so to keep it fresh) and make it visible. We then refer to it often when it comes to making decisions. That’s where it’s real value lies. 

What would your purpose statement be for the next 6 months? 

2. Start a few small things at the same time. The reality in a complex environment is that fulfilling our purpose won’t be a single, straight path. It’s not a dot-to-dot to a big success. We replace one big action with a few small actions that we can learn from quickly and adapt. We go faster and bigger as we have more certainty.

Recently, I’ve been doing work on motivation and experimentation within a division of a large company. We’re looking to create ways for people to voluntarily engage in our programme of work. We could create a “fail safe” plan and roll it out across the division. That would be a big play with lots of assumptions made about unknown aspects.

Instead, we’ve run a series of short presentations, internal communications and optional mini workshops. With every action we’ve thought about how to monitor what’s working and how to build on that. We’ve also thought about signs of failure and have a recovery/exit plan if we start to see them occur. Some things have worked, and others haven’t.

The process of setting up a handful of small experiments felt big enough to be motivating but not overwhelming. And, we were able to get going straight away. Feeling safe, but without having to have a watertight plan.   

What are 3-5 small things you could do in the next week to move you in the direction you need to go? 

3. Remember that big doors swing on small hinges. In a complex environment, small actions can (don’t always) have a disproportionately large impact. One small conversation we have could make a big, positive difference in unforeseen ways. This keeps us motivated because who knows what big impact our next small action might have. 

I remember randomly meeting someone in the Tauranga Club lounge a few years ago. That meeting has led to a lot of work for me that I could never have planned for.

What prompts could you put in place to remind you to look out for the impact of your small actions and be open to serendipity?

So, if you feel the underwhelm of starting small, remember the following. The path to your purpose will not be linear. Your actions won’t go neatly one after the other and increase proportionately in impact. There will be multiple options to explore. Starting small is the way to move forward in a complex environment… and you may not have to wait too long to see a large impact.

Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.