Small Changes, Big Effects, New Mindset: Seeing and Creating Change

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The secret to large scale transformation is thinking big and acting small and thinking differently about it all.

When faced with a challenge or threat there is a theory that we need to match our force like-for-like: massive change requires massive action. While partly true, it’s also misleading.

Complex situations — those with a lot of activity happening on different levels of influence, mechanisms, and timescales — are tricky to address (even becoming wicked). They are also resistant to massive action.

There’s evidence that small changes performed often, in close coordination, and rigorously monitored can provide the kind of flexible, dynamic, and adaptive way to create change. Complexity presents us with conundrums, paradoxes, and dilemmas including the way changes are initiated, activated, and sustained. One of these deals with energy.

It turns out that small actions, done persistently, can achieve far more than large ones. It also means shifting our mindset toward a new way of thinking of change in the first place, shifting from dualism to what we might call spectrum thinking.

A little visual thinking can make a big difference to illustrate this point.

From Dualism to Spectrum Thinking

Humans have a tendency to view many things in terms of contrasts: good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, just/unjust. While such judgments suit simple or even complicated events, dualistic thinking is a habit of mind that fails us when approaching complex situations. A more useful way to see complexity is on a spectrum.

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A colour spectrum set up distinctions where the neighbouring hues share qualities of one another we move from one shade to another. A spectrum can provide a useful metaphor for orienting activities as we recognize elements of one part of a system within another. It also provides a more dynamic, granular perspective on a situation and illustrates the subtly of how a small shift in direction can lead you through waves of difference along a journey from one state to another.

By plotting things on a spectrum, we are able to explore what kind of small changes might move us further toward or away from a position we find unattractive or unworkable, while not having to submit to an either/or.

For another example, consider the issue of urban walkability. On one side of the spectrum might be a policy suggestion that involves banning automobiles outright while on the other we might find policies designed to build cities around the car, with roads being the starting point (not the end). By plotting ideas and solutions along a spectrum rather than as a dichotomy, we may find some areas where the two ideas may mix. Within this mix might lay solutions that could satisfy both parties and create options never considered.

From Two to Three

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Another way to approach issues within complex problems is to extend our points of reference from two to three. In the previous example, the dichotomy is between cars and walking/movement. While we may find ourselves with creative options, we are still constrained by things that are ‘automobile-like’ and ‘walking/biking-like’. This can cause us to miss alternatives that don’t reasonably fit into either zone.

For example, both models tend to ‘ground’ people and shape our thinking into pathways — literally and figuratively. Path dependencies are those things that shape our thinking and actions by creating figurative and literal paths for our mind and our actions to follow. Adding a third dimension to our model we might reframe our choices.

I took this approach when viewing the way we understand the practice of design and how it was more than just design thinking or making. In the case of the example above, we might find that our options expand and we see things like the urban gondola systems that are used widely across Latin America. The use of cable-cars provides innovative ways to move people that incorporate a different model of transporting people across the city that isn’t centred on the bike, the car, or foot.

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We are also seeing this change of thinking with elevated bike ‘highways’ that have been created in China and are in development elsewhere as a means to keep riders safe, improve speed and efficiency, and avoid having to remove other means of transportation like roads (which are used for cars, goods transport, and public transit).

Creating that third option allows us to see something we couldn’t before and rather than propose a full-scale change, we can do a small or mid-scale change that could contribute to something bigger. This approach is a form of design thinking and can allow us to see, create, and implement new ideas rather than remain stuck in the old ones.

Photos by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash, Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash, and chuttersnap on Unsplash.

If you’re interested in learning more about what this way of viewing problems and developing solutions looks like in practice, contact Cense and we can help you visualize your system to better help you find where you are and where you can go in your innovation journey.

Designer, evaluator, educator, & psychologist supporting people in making positive change, by design. Principal @censeltd @censeacademy

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