Small Wins

One of my favorite articles was written in 1988 on the power of small wins. You can read it in its entirety here…

Small Wins by Karl E. Weick

Others have written articles on the same subject, but this one is my favorite.

The overall idea is that taking small bites out of a bigger more daunting challenge will get you where you want to go, whereas just trying to jump to the top in one giant stroke is near impossible. Here are some examples of this in practice:

  • Sobriety: AA focuses on staying sober one day at a time.
  • In sports, equivalents are baseball singles instead of home runs, in football first downs instead of hail mary’s. In basketball, one year Pat Riley asked each player on his team to get just 1% better in five different categories…seems small enough but by getting each of his players to slightly up their game they won the title the next year.
  • Consider the challenge of counting sheets of paper: if you are counting 1000 sheets of paper with periodic disruptions, you may get to 888 and have to start all over. If instead you break it into 10s or 100s, an interruption doesn’t set you back near as much

Deliberately going after small wins reinforces the perception that people can exert some influence over what happens to them and produces change of manageable size that serves as an incentive to keep going. It is initially less stressful and over time builds significant traction. Small wins are easier for people to work toward. If you break down the big problem into a series of small wins:

  • Not near as much fear of failure as failures are less important
  • It reduces the pressure (“just do this one small thing, not a giant one”)
  • No fear of lack of skills (I can do this by myself… I have the ability)

A small win by itself may seem unimportant, however a series of wins at small but significant tasks reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. Additional resources also flow toward winners.

Small wins are easier to comprehend and digest. Once a small win has been accomplished forces are set in motion that favor another small win. When a solution is put in place the next solvable problem often becomes more visible. This occurs because new allies bring new solutions with them and old opponents change their habits. I recently watched the movie the Martian and this was his game plan when stranded on Mars, “That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math, you solve one problem. Then you solve the next one, and then the next and if you solve enough problems you get to come home.”

Consider also, that a small win is also someone else’s small loss, the stakes are reduced, which encourages the losers to bear their loss without disrupting the social system. If you take a small win from Amazon or Apple, the may not notice, but boldy attack their core business and you may awaken a giant. Big wins can lead to unexpected negative consequences and big countermeasures.

Finally, just get started, because you can’t plan it all out. Careful plotting of a series of wins to achieve a major change is impossible because conditions do not remain constant. Go for the first win and see where that leads. String a couple together and you may start an avalanche! Get Started!

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