September 8, 2010

Small steps are often the only way to start tackling problems that nearly overwhelm us

Solution-focused practitioners generally focus on one small step forward instead of a big leap. Intuitively you may think that taking small steps may only be useful for situations in which you have small problems but this is not the case. On the contrary, when problems are large, taking small steps may be even more powerful. In fact, we believe they are often the only way to start tackling problems that nearly overwhelm us. Why is this so? Here are four reasons:
  1. Low threshold: when the step forward is as small as possible, the requirement of energy, motivation, and trust is minimal. The threshold is so low that the willingness to take the step will be maximal. The low threshold stimulates a high probability of change.
  2. Low risk: when taking a big leap you may achieve a lot at once, providing the direction chosen turns out to be precisely right and providing, figuratively speaking, the landing turns out to be soft. But it the direction was not accurate, you may end up way off-track. And if the landing was hard you may break your ankle. Small steps don't have these disadvantages. Little precise knowledge and certainty is needed about the effectiveness of the step. The step can be seen as an experiment. If does not work not much will be lost. The chance of damage and wasted energy will be minimal. In the unpredictability that characterizes many work situations this is a great advantage. The one small step approach makes it easy to respond flexibly to developments.
  3. Positive message: saying that only drastic change will be sufficient can be rather demotivating. People may feel unacknowledged and unappreciated for their previous efforts ("if such big change is necessary, apparently, we have done everything wrong until now"). Aiming for a small step, however, implies something positive, namely that there is already a lot functioning well as it is. Changing no more than strictly necessary is really like saying: “There is already a lot going well and we do not want to risk of losing that by changing too much. It will not be necessary to drastically change our course. A subtle change will do.” A positive message like that reflects trust and works motivating.
  4. Positive snowball effects: the one small step approach has a surprising side advantage: it may lead to a snowball effect. Edwin Olson and Glenda Eoyang, authors of ‘Facilitating Organizational Change: Lessons from Complexity Science’ (2001) describe such a process as follows: “A small change in one part ripples through the organization and can have tremendous unintended consequences far from the site of the intervention”. Why is that so? The reason is that in a complex system, everything is linked to everything. Maybe you know the so-called butterfly effect from chaos theory? Scientist Edward Lorenz argued that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might cause a tornado in Texas. Likewise, taking one step forward as an individual can eventually lead to system wide progress. The behavior of one person will affect the behavior of another person, which will affect yet another person, and so on. In this way, small-scale actions may lead to large-scale change.
A nice example of the amazing power of small steps is the case of Pat Riley. In the nineteen eighties, Pat Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had just lost the MBA championship final to the Boston Celtics. There was some panic within the Lakers group. They wondered how they could ever win the Championship against the seemingly unbeatable Celtics. They would have to get so much better and they chance to that seemed slim. But Riley, a great strategist, knew how to do this. He did not buy expensive new players. He did not double the amount of training hours and he did not put extra strict demands on his players. He only challenged them to improve every single aspect of their game with a mere 1%. The result was surprising. The Lakers won the championship. Not only in that year but also in the following year. Riley proved that many small steps, steps which may seem insignificant, can lead to great results.

My invitation to you is: think of one thing you'd like to improve in your life/in your work and take a few minutes to write down the smallest step forward you can think of. After you've done this take that small step. See what happens next. 


  1. I have been reading your blog for a while and I have really enjoyed it a lot. Your way of making SF understandable is brilliant! I am in the process of implementing SF skills into my organization, an IT company in northern Sweden with about 30 employees. We have been facing a problem that has been growing slowly over the years, that we have tried to address a number of times (but have never succeded in "taming the beast"). It’s an extremly complex IT-releated challenge that involves tons of different technology, processes and people. It also involves almost every aspect of our professional skills and knowledge and almost every employee in the company. We had recently come to the point where it is was so huge we didn't even think it would be possible to EVER find a solutions to this – it would take time, effort, energy, money and a project so huge we couldn’t even imagine who would want to try… Overwhelming is an understatement. So, I read your post on small steps and was inspired in trying it out on this, the very largest of problems I could imagine, just to see what would happen.
    So what I did was to use traditional SF tools, such as describing the future perfect, scaling and counters, but with the focus of finding the very smallest steps that would take us in the desired direction. The first step I personally could imagine was to give some SF coaching to the one person now responsible for this “problem area”, and the smallest step he could imagine was to gather everyone involved or with usable skills into a meeting where we together would divide “the beast” into very small portions and give everyone the task of identifying the very smallest step forward on each part.
    This meeting took place three days ago, and even though we have yet done almost NOTHING, we all agree that this time we will succeed, and success is just around the corner – as a matter of fact, we allready feel we are on top of things! Truly amazing! Thank you for the inspiration!

    Niklas Tiger

  2. Dear Niklas, thanks a lot for sharing this! Very interesting!

  3. Hi,
    I am very much believing in this principle at the scale of my own life and I wonder what happened with Niklas's rather large-scale experiment? I really like this blog site...thanks!
    Best regards,

  4. Hi Celeste, I don't know what happened. I haven't heard from him since....

  5. Hi!
    I actually wrote a piece on this about a year ago and my idea was to post it here but somehow I forgot about it. Anyway, I found it so here it is along with some additional thoughts, now two years later (it’s quite long so I will divide it into a couple of posts):
    The initial results were mind-blowing. Within less than a week we had turned the feeling of hopelessness into actually seeing some light in the tunnel (and believing it was NOT the train). Now, we had previously made many efforts over the years that had failed. Big plans, lots of ideas on what we needed to accomplish, great visions on how it should work out in a perfect world, and so on. We had also usually felt quite optimistic that we would succeed when plans initially were drawn up. But reality had always proved us wrong, and hope had fainted with each failed attempt. So, the very interesting question was: Would it be different this time? Even though the small steps that we had initially taken provided some hope and moved us a bit forward, the challenge was still just as huge and difficult. We still had miles and miles to go, so would the story actually be different in the end? I was definitely curious to find out.
    Also, since the problem covered so many parts of our organization, customer demands/expectations, different technologies and employee skills along with fundamental changes to many crucial work processes, we needed to make those changes while at the same time maintaining full operation. Otherwise we would be at serious risk of going out of business. Therefore, I had always imagined this to be a project that would need at least a year (or possibly more) to be carried out. In this, I really didn’t have a clear picture of all the things we needed to do, but I realized that there were lots and lots to be done before we were finished (if ever). All ranging from designing new work processes, redesigning organizational roles and responsibilities, designing and implementing IT support systems and training people to mention a few. So a year would probably be quite tight.

    I would find myself to be terribly wrong – in a very good way. Only two and a half months later we were actually done! All the changes we needed to make were in place, everybody had been trained, organizational changes were carried out and we had also designed and implemented IT-systems to support the new processes from beginning to end. The result were truly amazing! Once the snowball started to turn, there was actually no stopping it.

    One thing I find interesting is trying to figure out how this actually happened. What was the main difference and the drive that made us succeed? What was the main reason that made the small steps method work so well? My initial feeling was that small steps would be a good way of getting things started, but after that maybe we would need to revert to more traditional project planning- and work methods to keep momentum? We resisted though, because we really wanted to find out if small steps would take us all the way. And it did, a lot quicker and more accurate than what would have been the case if we along the way would have sat down and created the “big plan project” (which I believe would even have introduced the risk of us failing once again). Instead, every time we came to a point where we felt we had lost some momentum or we felt unsure on how to move on, we sat down and recollected all the things that had taken place already, finding the next small step in each area (and sometimes selecting only one or two) that would be the next ones to take. In doing this, there was little or no energy wasted on things that might need to be done later on (future decisions to be made, challenges to be conquered, etc). Instead we were focusing only on what we needed to do in the present.

    Continued in the next post…

  6. Previous post continued:
    It’s quite easy to understand why it works once you think about it, but I still don’t think that’s the key success factor. Instead, the main drive in us completing this project in such a sensationally short time and with such great results, is that once we knew exactly what do to in detail, we couldn’t wait to actually do it! When something is fun or inspiring to do, you will make time in your schedule - sooner rather than later (even if there is no time) - just because you simply can’t wait! I find the opposite is also true. If the task assigned to you is too large, too complex or it’s difficult to figure out in detail what it is you need to do, then you will tend to fill an even empty schedule with other things to do instead of getting started. At the same time, in the back of your head, a process of figuring out how you should go about the task is going to consume energy from whatever you’re occupied with. To figure this out can take a long time, and sometimes it never happens. It’s neither fun nor easy to try to do something when you don’t actually know where to start. If that happens, the best thing is usually to go back to the drawing table and figure out an even smaller (and more understandable) step towards what you want to achieve.

    So I find the key difference here is making tasks understandable, in a very low tech way, which then will make them fun to carry out (because very soon afterwards you will be enjoying the results). Focusing on making every step extremely understandable (what we are actually going to do and what we want the result of that very step to be), is crucial to success and a huge drive if done properly. I really think it is as easy as that. Or as hard as that… To me, a good way of making sure that a task is easy enough to understand is checking if I could explain what I am about to do to a five-year-old. If my task is described in “million dollar words” such as “I need to redesign some work processes for releasing changes in our datacenter to ensure a higher level of quality” I am at risk of getting nowhere. Once I have figured out that this task actually means “I will make I checklist that anyone making changes in our datacenter can follow” it’s time to get to work.

    In the end we turned our overwhelming challenge into a series of small and fun activities, each one producing a little but clearly noticeable result. All of a sudden we found we had run out of tasks, because we were all done! Of course we have also used many other SF tools along the way that have proved very useful in different situations. But without the small steps approach I still think we wouldn’t have got the job done. Also in designing new work processes we have used SF tools and the words “simple, usable, practical and understandable” when making sure they are being designed properly. We have also always tried identify and build on what we already have that works, to really make sure we design something that actually can and will be used. It turned out we really had 85-90% of what we needed already in place so instead of tearing everything down and trying to start all over (which would also have meant we would have torn down a bunch of already very good working structures) we just added a little on top and got everything workning really well without rebuilding everything and having the need of training everyone on something completely new.

    Another perspective is getting everybody’s head in the game. When attacking something very difficult together, each one contributing with small actions, it’s a great to be able to share the success with the many people involved. It brings a lot of positive energy and builds a feeling of “being able to move mountains” into the group. After conquering this problem – what is there we cannot achieve if we really put our mind to it? Also – we know it is not something to fear – we know we can do it and enjoy it at the same time!
    Continued in next post…

  7. Previous post continued:

    In summary: To me this project has been the best of proofs showing that leading a project using SF and the power small steps really can create magical results!

    Now this was two years ago, and we have kept working with small steps in refining everything since. This is now one of the areas in our company that we are most proud of and we gladly talk about how well managed our datacenter is. But as always everything changes and we are now battling new challenges that have come with the success we've had in selling service from our datacenter. We have grown our practice so much that we now need to replace many manual work processes and quality checks, initially nicely designed and working well, with automated ones. Of course we do this step by step always thinking of what small ones would bring the most value at each point in time. It's a continuous work that will never end, but it’s also great fun! 

    Also, customers now ask us to help them implement the similar structures within their IT departments. Now that is the time to resist using our project as a template in any other way than saying to the customer - "We will help you in doing whatever you need to be done in very small and efficient steps. In the end it might look like what we did - but then again - it could be something completely different only because that was a better way of doing it in your organization.” So using SF in customer projects is now a common thing, but that’s a different (and also a very good) story! :-)


    1. Hi Niklas, Thank you for your update! Would it be okay with you if I'd post this information as a separate post?


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