Right now, small is the new big. Small and nimble, solve small problems, small teams.
How do you make a big difference then? Because, after all, we're not in this to put in all this hard work to make a small impact.
You want your smallness to be "big-enabled". And the last thing you want to do is to over-small any of your big ideas.
A CEO is tasked with 1, 3, and 5 year goals for a company. Big.
To reach those goals he needs to create an action plan that includes things like improving customer service, hiring some key individuals, adjusting the advertising message maybe... Lots and lots of little things that require detailed examination of every aspect of the company. Small.
However, each of the items on that action plan, and this is where I think many companies drop the ball tend to get oversmalled. The person put in charge of them doesn't think big enough with each of these little tasks. A lot of times its because either the people on the ground don't have the incentives to think big with their small, microchunked tasks, or the culture is such that people thing its only to CEO's job to think big, and their job not to get in the way.
Are your departments and staff big-enabled?
So, for example, General Motors knew it needed to overhaul its car offering. They had successfully done it with trucks, but now their car line needed a lot of work. Big.
One area they tackled was the retro muscle car market. GM decided it wanted to bring back enthusiasm for a powerful sedan that was sporty, but not sleek like a sportscar... Their GTO. In the grand scheme of things, it was on model out of 77. It wasn't going to make or break the company. Small.
The implementation, however, was unfortunately small as well. They took an existing model from an Australian affiliate, the Monero, and just stuck some Pontiac nameplates on it. While they did sell, it certainly hasn't generated the kind of enthusiasm that the totally redesigned Mustang is, or the Dodge Charger. They got a two year head start on the Charger, but I'll bet you anything that Dodge sells more Chargers next year than Pontiac sells GTOs. Whoever is behind the Charger was thinking big. One model in a big company, but they put had the goal of making as big an impact as they could with their small piece of the overall Daimler Chrysler pie. If ever single person at Daimler Chrysler or Ford started thinking the same way the product manager of the Mustang or the Charger thought, those companies would be in much better competitive positions.
Sometimes, its not just about incentives, though. Its about creating an environment where even the small people feel empowered to take a risk here and there to shoot for something big.
I had the same personal experience when I helped Fordham start its alumni mentoring program. When I first pitched the idea of launching a program that matches young alumni with younger students for three months of mentoring, I pitched it straight to the top. The people at the top encouraged me to seek out the people below them who would help implement it, and their mindset was to figure out how we could start small... with, let's say, a "networking night" to test it out. I had a bad reaction to that and pushed harder to go for broke and try a whole program. We did both.
The networking night didn't quite work out so well... not enough students showed up. There was little follow up.
The mentoring program, on the other hand, quickly grew in interest from 25 pairs, to 35 pairs, to 52 in our first year. With the career office and the alumni office's help, it was a huge success. Now its part of the career office's regular offering.
But how is that possible? The smaller, "toe in the water" thing didn't work, but the larger "shoot for the sky" thing did. Isn't that counterintuitive, and, doesn't that pose a real problem for a manager? If a "test" effort isn't predictive, then how in the world are people supposed to figure out where to take risks?
I think it has to do with building an atmosphere of committment. You want all of the people on the ground to act as if they, and their company, are committed to executing all the small tasks and making them as big a success as they can possibily be. If they act like they just don't want to make a lot of waves inside the company or that they don't carry the weight and support of the company behind them, their projects will be doomed to failure. Your customers take something more seriously when they see you're more serious about it--no matter how small this one thing is in the grand scheme of the big vision. They know when you're just repackaging versus just redesigning and they'll pay their attention accordingly. Otherwise, its all just blowing smoke.
Sometimes, that's going to mean that you might break a few eggs... that your company will put its weight behind something that has so-so results. Fine, but at least you know that you're giving every one of your efforts a full opportunity to be successful, and, moreover to be game changing--to ultimately enable you to leap over your competition.