Small actions

I’ve always liked the quote from Dwight Eisenhower, “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” It invites us to turn technical problems into system change opportunities. So it is shift for me to be thinking a lot about how to make problems smaller.

More specifically, I’ve been looking at the big actions we want people to take and working out ways to reduce those actions into their parts. If you make actions small enough, even the most unmotivated person might move forward.

I think about small actions from two points of view. First, I am a teacher, eager to design and deliver experiences that reflect what we know about adult learning and human behavior. For example, I appreciate how small actions shift how people first engage in a topic. We can “prime” people for learning or a discussion by inviting them to think about a topic in advance. We can frame our content by asking open-ended or recall questions that get people thinking about the content. Short bits of content spread over time contributes to better memory. Practicing an action, even for a short time, builds muscle memory to repeat that action later on.

We can design and deliver learning experiences and gatherings with “small teaching” moments (to use the name of James M. Lang’s book on the topic).

Give it a try: Think ahead to your next workshop, board meeting, staff meeting, or gathering as a whole: How could you use pre-thinking (priming), framing questions, short bits of content spread out over time, or practice?

I also think about small actions from an outcome point of view. (This is what BJ Fogg explores in Tiny Habits.) What small actions do we want people to take as a result of our lessons or meetings? How do we break down our “ask” as small as possible to address barriers holding them back. Barriers such as:

Motivation. Someone highly motivated to do something may be inclined to “go big.” The rest of us may fall in the low the mid-level of motivation on an action. By making the action smaller, we increase their motivation.

Ability. Peoples’ ability to take an action may fall all over the map. By making the action smaller, we increase the likelihood that they are able to take that action.

Environment. People exist within a social structure and culture. By making the action smaller, we decrease potential cultural resistance to the action. We increase the likelihood that the action is sustained.

I made a list of advocacy-related small actions:

  • Choose a specific date or time to start a focus on advocacy. That might be the January board meeting or the first staff meeting after summer holidays. Having a ‘fresh start’ helps you to refresh a commitment.
  • Make it fun. Watch Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” (available widely on YouTube) together and talk about your experiences with legislation. Discover the policy-making stories of people on your team.
  • Spend time imagining the benefits of advocacy for your organization so your team becomes more invested in that picture. If people understand why something is important, they are more likely to be invested in what needs to happen.
  • Join one group. Start by joining one group. Become a member of at least one coalition or association to start building connections outside of your organization.
  • Name one “value add” that you can contribute to the action of others. You may have one story, one data point, or one solution that would help a coalition’s advocacy effort

I’ve also played around with a small action list for nonprofit boards. It starts with:

  • Include one pair-share conversation (people talking in pairs) in your next board meeting.
  • Invite someone who is not the ED, board chair, or treasurer to lead the finance conversation.
  • Start the meeting inviting people to describe what success looks like for that meeting.
  • Pause during a meeting to acknowledge the emotions in the room.
  • Go for a walk/have coffee with someone working in/with this nonprofit or a different nonprofit in your community.
  • Read one article/book about the cause in which you are working.
  • Write one thank you note.

I suppose Eisenhower’s quote is relevant. If we can’t achieve action now,  we need to enlarge our commitment to offering smaller options. We work harder on the front end so they can learn more, remember more, feel more connected, and experience greater motivation and ability to move forward. Given that we are talking about nonprofit leaders and volunteers doing our communities’ most important work, the effort is worth it.

YOUR TURN: What “ask” do you have for someone in your life– a colleague, a child, a partner, a client, etc.? How small can you break that “ask” down?

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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