Why small, targeted changes can have a big impact

targeted changes

As leaders, we are often faced with complex challenges that require significant change to achieve success.

It’s tempting to want to change everything at once but it’s often more effective to try to influence or nudge the system in the direction you want to go.

Nudges are subtle interventions that alter the decision environment, aimed at helping individuals make better decisions.

In the early 2000s, hospitals around the world were struggling with the problem of hospital-acquired infections, which can be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or equipment. Despite efforts to address the issue through traditional education campaigns and training programs, rates of hand hygiene compliance among healthcare workers remained stubbornly low.

Then, a study by Pittet, D. et al. found that nudging healthcare workers resulted in a significant increase in hand hygiene compliance. The study utilised several nudging techniques, including providing visible reminders and individual feedback, to encourage hand hygiene compliance among healthcare workers. The results showed an increase in compliance from 48% to 66%, with the positive change attributed to the effectiveness of nudging.

Over time, the simple interventions used in the study, such as placing hand sanitiser dispensers at the entrance to hospital rooms, evolved through other people’s experiments and have been widely adopted in hospitals around the world.

It’s like when the right conditions enable what starts as a small and seemingly insignificant spark to grow and spread like a bushfire.

By focusing on small, targeted changes, you can test how the system is responding and when you see it responding positively, nudge the system in the direction you want to go without overwhelming it.

Research from McKinsey found that when organisations focus on a small number of strategic priorities and make targeted, high-impact changes, they are more likely to achieve success.

It’s tempting to put all your trust in ‘one thing’, but when it comes to complex problems that’s a big risk to take.

What if your one thing crashes and burns? Instead, you may want to launch several safe-to-try experiments so you can test which ones take you in the preferred direction. And because it’s unlikely one thing led to your complex problem, it also makes sense to experiment and influence the different elements that are contributing to your problem.

Try out small changes and quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. Ensure you’re monitoring the system and know which feedback loops you’ll use to get insights about how the system is responding. Then use what you’re learning to adapt your experiments to increase their impact. Amplify what works and stop wasting time on lost causes to create feedback loops that are more likely to drive success.

As Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, once said: “You can’t change everything at once, but you can change something at once”.

Get creative with smaller, safe-to-try experiments, to influence change without overwhelming the system.

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