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“Big is fine. Big is what things amount to. But small? The repeatable, testable, alterable, doable steps toward big? Small deserves more respect. Small is the smartest path to different.”
Within the last decade, behavioral economists, psychologists and business experts have elevated the power of small acts in making large-scale change. In “Nudge,” Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein point to the ways seemingly insignificant changes can influence behavior. Similarly, in his book “Inside the Nudge Unit,” behavioral scientist Dr. David Halpern outlines how seemingly small solutions have led to significant improvements across tax, healthcare, pensions, employment, crime reduction, energy conservation and economic growth from his vantage point heading up the UK government’s “Nudge Unit.” In the business world, Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School has studied how small everyday progress — or small wins — can dramatically affect how workers feel and perform, leading to an outsized increase in creativity and productivity.
In the foundations, nonprofits and communities in which we work, the people who catalyze these small acts occupy all roles. They are community residents, case managers, coaches, program officers and program managers. While C-Suite leaders tend to be big idea people, they too take small acts that nudge their organizations forward. It is not title or role that distinguishes this group of doers but the degree to which they are boldly persistent.
Perhaps the best way to understand the power of small things is to think of a revolution. In one of his books, Kurt Vonnegut writes that revolutions need three types of people: the authentic genius, the respected advocate and the technician. The authentic genius is the one who can envision something that has never existed. The respected advocate validates and promotes the genius’ idea. Finally, the technician has the skills to translate the genius’ idea into action.
Small acts may seem insufficient or inconsequential in the moment but they plant seeds that grow over time.