Small Acts of Change

In his 1984 paper, “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems,” organizational theorist Karl Weick observed that social problems are often so complex and grand in scope and scale that simply thinking about them can overwhelm and paralyze even the most dedicated social changemakers.

His proposed strategy for handling this psychological obstacle is to break the problem down into smaller pieces so that the work feels manageable and progress can be measured as a series of “small wins.”

While I am not sure things always work out so neatly, the piece can be a helpful read for early-stage innovators considering their next move. This month I also found myself propelled forward in outsized ways by the small wins because they seemed to embody the bigger, transformative work ahead of us.

One episode began in the form of a short note, sent a few days ahead of a SICI event…

The proper custom among the Ojibwa is to open all meetings with a prayer and a smudge. A smudge entails lighting a small amount of sage leaf to produce smoke that all participants at the meeting are then invited to spread over their heads and hearts. Will this ceremony be a problem?

The number of steps, people, forms, and resources required (not to mention the required presence of a fire marshal!) to make this happen on campus was comical.  No, it was not a problem, but it also was not business as usual. And it became obvious to anyone involved in getting this task approved that the type of institutional transformation required to make permanent space for such a practice could feel insurmountable if scaled up to many more meetings.

Starting an event with smoke — or in the case of another SICI meeting this month, a loud and beautiful song — should be as straightforward as printing an agenda. At the moment it is not. However, each iteration makes the path clearer for the next.

I encourage you to look around for the small wins in your work. They carry us forward but they are also a reminder of the important role even the smallest change can play in shifting the norms around us.

Together with you,

Brittany Butler signature

Brittany Butler
Executive Director, SICI
Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, HKS

We received an exciting amount of interest after last month’s note went out about the development of our 3P Pedagogy. If you are a social innovation capacity builder and would be interested in getting a sneak peek at the playbook when it becomes available for feedback, sign up here.