Micro Actions for Macro Problems

Maybe I’ve been wrong. I talk about climate change and inequality reaching their tipping points. I’ve been taught to mobilize the audience with shocking statistics and horrific images. But there is a delicate balance between getting someone’s attention to move them into action and paralyzing them with fear into inaction.

“When the magnitude of problems is scaled upward in the interest of mobilizing action, the quality of thought and action declines, because processes such as frustration, arousal, and helplessness are activated,” reported Karl Weick, an organizational theorist. In other words, “People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them”.

What happens is that we end up not doing anything at all.

We see social and environmental problems as too big for a single person or organization to solve. We wait for “big” solutions or changes to the system that involve capital and political resources. We say we need more funding to change the education system. We say we need a new policy to redistribute income from the wealthy to the poor.

Big Solutions Removes our Power

This mindset pushes the responsibility away from us to governments, lobby groups, and large organizations. This mindset disempowers us. We wait for a big solution and think that someone else is solving the problem. We continue to do things in the way that we always have. How can change start when we don’t take the first step within ourselves and in our homes?

Second, when we try to get the big solutions requiring capital resources and political power, we waste more time and energy in bringing these solutions to implementation. System changes take a long time to get off the ground because of the multiple discussions, reports, and committees that need to get involved.

What could we have done while we were trying to convince others to think our way? Let’s say a parent wants their child and their classmates to learn coding at school. Instead of petitioning for additional funding, how about finding another parent who codes who would be willing to spend an hour a week with the students?

The other issue with big solutions is that by their nature, they do not address specific situations. When we design big solutions, we need to make broad sweeping assumptions to address disparate groups. When we peel back a big problem, divide it into different segments, and focus only on one segment, we can go to the heart of the problem.

Are the inferior academic results in this lower-income school due to poorly trained teachers or because the students are too hungry to focus in class? Instead of tackling the education problem for the entire lower-income population, go micro and understand what the problem is for this group. Going micro can reveal the obvious solution for a particular group.

Small Wins Increase Probability of Future Successes

This is indeed what Karl Weick suggested—“(when we) recast larger problems into smaller, less arousing problems, (we) can identify a series of controllable opportunities of modest size that produce visible results”. He advocated for small wins—“concrete, complete, implemented outcome(s) of moderate importance”. He argued that a series of wins could “attract allies, deter opponents and lower resistance to subsequent proposals”.

From the mindset of the athlete, this makes sense. Wins bring more wins. When we miss a point in a tennis game, it takes extra effort to set aside the negative emotions and focus on the next shot. A winner’s high can help us persevere to the next hurdle and challenge to score the next win. This is why sports coaches advocate for bite-size achievable goals for athletes to reach for the ultimate goal.

The other benefit of focusing on micro solutions is similar to incremental innovation. Incremental (Horizon 1) innovation does not usually attract disruptive (Horizon 3) innovation. But incremental innovation and growth play their role in providing the insights and sometimes technology needed to get to disruptive innovation. Similarly, micro solutions to big problems are less visible and can chip away at the problem with less resistance by the bigger system over time. Like innovation, mini-experiments with a smaller identified group or a smaller piece of the puzzle enable us to learn and adapt our approach and solution with lower risk. There are fewer interdependent parts that make the problem less complex to understand and easier to control and predict.

Focus on the doable. What is in front of us and in our hands? What is within our control? Language has been said to perpetuate stereotypes, whether it is the words, tone, or communication styles we use. This is where we can be more intentional, whether at home or work. How do we talk about different groups of people can influence the perception of our family and coworkers. By being more aware of our communication, we could start to shift the inequality equation.

When we focus on what is within our control, we are only limited by our imagination, initiative, and passion. When we focus on one thing, we are more effective. At the next dinner, you could invite guests not within your usual circle. How could you help them feel welcomed and included in your community? Be curious and open-minded—there is so much we can learn from people different from us.

When we focus on our own actions, we can observe the direct impact of those actions. Let’s say you invest an hour a week to mentor and coach someone to get a better job. When they achieve their goals, you share in their success. Even if the problem of inequality is not solved, you could have changed someone else’s life. I’ve witnessed this in the three-month-long Actv8 Network programs. Imagine the impact that you have by investing just twelve hours of your time for someone else.

Fans of Roger Federer (like myself) may have been disappointed by his loss at the Wimbledon tennis championship last week. In his post-quarterfinals match interview, he discussed his uphill recovery from double knee surgery and shared that “you can’t think about the entire mountain to climb at once”. Although recovery was slow—he had to learn how to walk without crutches, then to run, then to move side to side, before he went back to the tennis court—he shared how he enjoyed achieving each step without rushing through them.

We can’t think about climbing the entire mountain of a big problem—be it inequality or any other global crisis—at once. What are the small actions or steps we can do today? When we focus on the journey, putting one foot in front of the other instead of staring at the peak, the mountain becomes more manageable to climb.

Let’s take that first step.

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