When it comes to achieving career goals or solving big problems, recognizing the importance of small steps is crucial.
When all the pieces are already in place, such as skills, structure, and process, achieving a goal is like solving a problem. However, when change is needed, either at the individual or team level, then you need to start by building a habit. In both cases, it is the deliberate accumulation of small steps that will get you there.
Habits and Goal Setting
If you’re looking to build / break a habit, then start with small and yet definitive steps. I recently received some blood work results indicating that my triglycerides were high. The cause can be too much sugar, too much alcohol, or genetics. I can’t do anything about my genetics, however I have control / influence over the first two. I didn’t change everything about my diet, however I cut out chocolate completely. Chocolate was an easy ingredient to identify and abstain from — a small yet definitive step.
Like any science experiment, if you change more than one variable at a time, it is very hard to judge cause and effect. So after cutting out chocolate for two months and allowing my body to adjust to that change, I then also eliminated desserts and soft drinks during the week. Another small deliberate step that is layered on top of the previous one. If I need to reduce even more, then I’ll wait another two months and introduce another change.
How long will it take to see a change? In complex systems it can take months. It is the compounding actions of small changes that account for the “hockey stick” effect whereby the line is flat or even decreasing before a rapid increase. Or as James Clear wrote in Atomic Habits (a must read) “change can take years, then it happens all at once.” The key is patience, deliberate small steps that allow you to learn and adjust, and constant encouragement.
Tips on Goal Setting
You can achieve your goals by writing them down. Better yet, tell someone about them — committing publicly increases your chances of success. And even better yet, find an encouraging accountability partner who can keep up your motivation when times are tough. This is how I succeeded over three long years, in writing and then self-publishing a book. After returning from an overseas mission, I told my team that I was going to write a book about our experiences. I interviewed them and committed publically to the task. I then invited others to write about their personal experience — we then became each other’s accountability partners.
Measure what matters. Determine the indicators or metrics that are needed to know that you are on track. A useful framework is the SMART Goals approach whereby they are: Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Tips on Problem Solving
How to solve big, complex problems is beyond the scope of this blog and something we cover in detail in our Planning & Execution courses. Our problem solving framework has seven stages: Orient, Think, Plan, Refine, Execute, Measure, and Learn. Each of those stages is broken down in steps. This is how we plan and execute missions in the military. This is how construction companies build large infrastructure projects. Small steps to achieve success.
Start with the end in mind. Ask yourself what is your vision? How do you define what success looks like? Work back from that endstate, breaking the problem down into a series of small steps — these become your phases or milestones.
Map it out. Identify the barriers and enablers for each phase — determine the ways (i.e. approaches) and means (i.e. resources) that can be used. There will be different options along the way. Pick the best ones. This becomes your strategy.
Delegate the tasks and provide the resources. Give people the intent and objectives and then let them figure out how they will accomplish their part by breaking things down into even smaller steps.
As Mark Twain once said “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.”
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…
Written by Mark Gasparotto
Gasparotto Group helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.