As humans, we have all been conditioned one way or another to the idea that the results of our actions are proportional to the effort and resources initially invested, a clear correlation between cause and effect: the harder I hit the baseball, the further it goes. The bigger the engine, the faster the car. The more money spent, the bigger the profits. The larger the organization, the more effective its reach. We reap what we sow. What we put in is what we get in return. With this prevailing view, anyone trying to create meaningful transformation in the world as an individual, not to mention without access to unlimited resources, might feel powerless to effect significant change. However, not only is small sometimes as effective as big, but sometimes it’s even more so.
Why Big Movements Can Fail to Create Change
We might think that the only way to create change in the world is through something big. After all, what can a single person of the seven billion on this planet achieve by themselves? A prevailing belief is that significant and meaningful results can only be attained by big and dramatic movements, usually involving huge sums of money and city-level change, or through governmental or charitable organizations with the appropriate resources. Sometimes these bigger gestures, however, are not able to create the intended impact. Whether it’s giving sizable donations to charitable organizations, placing the responsibility in the hands of government programs, or volunteering to be part of a substantial aid project, there are several reasons why these big, dramatic ways of “changing the world” often fail and prove ineffective.
Too Big to See the Smaller Picture
It’s one thing to identify a large-scale problem that needs to be solved, but larger organizations often find it difficult to recognize the low-level fundamentals necessary to create effective change. The failure of many government projects may stem from a misunderstanding of true local conditions and a lack of on-the-ground leadership. One example is the Gyandoot Program, a government initiative in India from some years back. This “Messenger of Knowledge” program looked to narrow the digital divide between cities and the countryside, with many rural areas having limited to no access to computers or the internet. Computer terminals were installed in over six hundred villages, bringing internet connection into the reach of thousands and quickly winning international praise. However, it soon became clear that the smaller, foundational issues had been missed, to the detriment and eventual failure of the program.
- The program found that there wasn’t actually enough electricity in the local grid to power the new IT network to begin with. Additional energy capacity, therefore, had to be found, raising operational costs beyond what had initially been envisaged for the program
- The telecommunications infrastructure in these rural areas was poor, resulting in slow and unreliable network connectivity.
- A poor marketing push meant that a huge number of the population were not adequately informed to use this new network, resulting in a low utilization rate of these services.
Being too big to see the smaller picture, the Gyandoot Program missed the rudimentary and obvious issues that a more localized, smaller organization could have quickly identified.
The Difficulty of Large Operational Oversight
The bigger the organization, the harder it is to dot every “i” and cross every “t”. Of course, every business will make the occasional slip-up, but smaller organizations are more likely to see and rectify major problems before it’s too late, unlike their large-scale counterparts, which could be unable to deliver effective operational oversight in all areas. Back in 2003, Drumnet, a Kenyan NGO, looked to finance, market, and transition local farmers from growing “local crops” to “export crops,” linking this otherwise rurally-removed populace to commercial banks, exporters, and retailers. The transition to export crops was implemented well, with a good take-up of farmers converting their farmland for this cause. However, Drumnet, with all its focus on the farmers and their adoption of export crops, missed a single vital point. Twelve months into the project, it was found that the proper export certifications for the enterprise had not been obtained. Subsequently, exporters were unable to purchase the crops, and farmers were left unable to sell their harvest. They wereleft with sizable loan defaults and product rotting in the fields, while Drumnet itself collapsed – all from a single lapse in regulatory oversight.
Small-Scale Efficiencies within Big-Scale Bureaucracy
With every extra manager, division, and layer of bureaucracy comes a further degree of separation between that person, the accountability team, and individual responsibility, resulting in an amplification of waste and a reduction in productivity. In bigger companies, as there are so many moving parts, it’s hard to see when people are moving in different directions to the detriment of the overall objective. Every year, a tremendous amount of money is spent on water aid in Africa: facilitating access to clean and accessible water is a huge movement, with billions of dollars spent on installing the necessary infrastructure to achieve this goal. However, a report from the International Institute for Environment and Development found that some $300m previously spent on boreholes, wells and other water supply points had been wasted. The IIED reported that the water infrastructure had badly fallen into disrepair, “rendering poor communities at least as badly off as they were before the aid money was spent.” Why? Because many of these larger water programs could turn to a decentralized approach that allowed for the wasting of organizational money, with unnecessary contract variations and renegotiations and little performance evaluation, as well as internal nepotism and kickbacks in the appointment and promotion to lucrative positions. There is still a possibility that all these failings could occur within the context of a smaller organization, but it is much easier to identify, respond, and rectify the problem.
Why Small is the Answer
The author of this IIED report, while critical in his evaluation of the schemes, concluded that a far better way of developing a well-maintained long-term water infrastructure was for donors to work at a local community level, providing hands-on expertise and lessons for the maintenance of sanitation and water infrastructure, with a local community fund acting as an ongoing source of money necessary for repairs. The solution was lower cost and localized, but the key was focusing on individuals, rather than attempting a grand goal, with correlating investment.
Everest was never conquered in a single step. No boxer ever became a world champion without that first gym session. Small actions have big impacts. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the aid of a small household item, Apollo 11, the fabled mission to the moon, might have gone down in history for all the wrong reasons: Having successfully landed on the moon and carried out their scientific objectives there, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were preparing to return to the command module in orbit above them. Unfortunately, Aldrin noticed that the one switch that was integral at that moment was not where it was supposed to be:
“I looked closer and jolted a bit. There on the dust on the floor on the right side of the cabin, lay a circuit breaker switch that had broken off.”
He exhaled deeply. The switch that was needed to send electrical power to the engine to blast them off the moon had snapped off. Mission Control in Houston could not figure out a solution. What would be their savior? The lid of Aldrin’s run-of-the-mill, office-grade felt-tip pen. It was neatly fitted into the circuit breaker slot, and the mission was saved.
Beyond the missions to the moon, science also supports the notion that small stones can create the biggest ripples. In Madrid, Spain, a team of psychologists looked to research the effects of small acts of kindness. They recruited employees from a Coca Cola plant under the pretense that they were taking part in a happiness study. The workers were told to note how they felt and any acts of kindness they performed that day. Among the participants, however, 19 were secretly told to perform additional small acts of kindness for half of the group. A control set, i.e., the other half, would not be treated to these extra acts of generosity. So, what were the results?
“The acts of kindness don’t go unnoticed. The receivers observed more prosocial behaviors in the office and by the end of the study, they were reporting ten times more prosocial behaviors than the controls. In addition, receivers’ level of ‘felt autonomy’ – essentially how much they felt in control of their days at work – were higher than the controls’.”
Indeed, a month after the end of the study, receivers were still reporting “significantly higher levels of happiness than the controls” – but the interesting part was still to come: not only had the number of kind acts reported by the employees increased tenfold, but receivers were reciprocating the kindness received not just to those who had been kind to them, but to others around them too. Small actions have big impacts.
Small Ideas for Big Change
So, what are some of the things that we can do in our everyday lives to create a big effect on those around us?
Check in on your neighbors
If there’s one thing we need now more than ever, it’s community. While the world is more connected than before, many people feel lost in the largeness, and it can be difficult for those around you to gain the motivation to reach out. Even if you don’t know your neighbors, there hasn’t been a better time to make the introduction. Just knowing that the person next door isn’t a stranger but a friendly face will do wonders for their well-being and the neighborhood or apartment complex you’re living in, spreading the idea of community and joy amongst those in it.
Grocery shopping for the elderly or less able
Heading down to the shops seems such a simple exercise for most of us, with the only inconvenience being finding a parking spot or trying not to purchase all the Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer section. For the elderly or less able, however, the weekly shop is not only a lifeline, but can be an odyssey: the trip to the shops itself, heavy bags, and crowds of people. Combining your shopping trip with theirs, and adding a few items from their grocery list to your basket, might not seem a significant effort on your part, but it will mean so much to any older and less able folks who need it.
Send someone a card letting you know you’re thinking of them
Sending a letter or a card to someone you know is such a great way to raise their spirits with the knowledge that someone is thinking of them. No one is asking for a 10-page letter – even a simple message, hand-written and placed in the post shows effort and care for the recipient. Just don’t forget your stamps!
The Care Package
If you want to take the previous point slightly further, a friend who has been down in the dumps and low on morale will always raise a smile when a package is at their door. A box of foodie delights, snacks and beverages always go down well, especially since we sometimes need an excuse to munch on the junkier, sweeter side of life. You can also send cocktail kits, artisanal pasta-making kits, and burger kits – or hobby and craft packages if that’s more of the intended recipient’s thing; the possibilities (much like the author’s appetite for sweet stuff) are endless.
Give Someone a Listening Ear in a Personal Conversation
There’s something to be said about creating a meaningful connection in today’s world. We’re supposed to be living in an interconnected society, so why does it feel more impersonal than ever? People are always looking to find a place to share their dreams and passions, to find common ground with other individuals. Providing someone with a listening ear makes that person feel valued, and creates a purposeful connection that genuinely and authentically builds them up from the inside out. It can be challenging to find a way to make this kind of connection today, but VideoSocialize offers a virtual platform to bring people together in a positive and exceptional space. Creating an avenue for meaningful Zoom mixer meetings, this is a place where people can find passion, career, and life group mixers that can really instigate positive change.
Help Someone In Visible Need
It’s easy to look the other way and perhaps ignore the obvious, but if you really pay attention, you will see people’s invisible needs in your daily life. A small act of kindness to someone in distress can really make their worst day infinitely better. Helping someone who looks lost in your city, has car trouble, or is just looking upset and needs one person to ask, “are you ok?” doesn’t take much, but can help that person feel like the world isn’t so bad after all.
All too often, the small gesture is dismissed too easily, with critics of the approach looking down on it as a “band-aid solution.” They see it as a temporary and inadequate way of dealing with anything meaningful. But as Malcolm Gladwell says, the band-aid “is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems.” The humble band-aid might well be an appropriate metaphor, since something as small and simple as that has allowed tennis champions to march on to victory, chefs to continue providing the most delicious meals, and Olympians to keep running for gold when they might otherwise have been unable to finish the race. It’s direct, it’s an individual application, and it has helped millions. We’ve looked at several ways in which small actions can create a big change, but the common denominator between all of them is clear: the personal touch. Humans were not made to exist in isolation, and platforms such as VideoSocialize allow us to find and form positive connections, creating a better world not just for us but for those around us as well.
8 Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Articles on the videosocialize.com blog are commissioned by VideoSocialize from talented writers with a variety of backgrounds. All articles copyright VideoSocialize. Would you be interested in sharing your thoughts on this article in a 4 person Zoom discussion which would be uploaded to YouTube? If so, please contact us.
Jonathan is an English-Singaporean writer based in London. He writes feature pieces and social commentary for a variety of publications, looking to enlighten, intrigue, challenge, and entertain. He holds a Master’s in Modern Ethics from the University of Oxford, and a Bachelor’s in Theology from Nottingham University. When he’s not putting pen to paper, Jonathan fosters a heavy addiction to coffee, tennis, and the novels of Haruki Murakami.