One Small Step for Your Business, One Giant Leap for Success

Small, incremental changes can have a huge impact on long-term business growth.
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
January 12, 2012

Quite a few books and studies recently have touted the power of incremental change. Small actions can have a huge impact on long-term business growth.

The appropriate degree of change needed for innovating within organizations is, in general, a 45-degree change, consistent but not too radical. That tends to be more effective than a 5-degree change (purely incremental) or a 90-degree change (radical).

Feeling good about it

People feel good when they accomplish something, even if it is small.

If you increase motivation, you improve overall performance and creativity, according to Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School professor. In The Progress Principle, she makes a compelling case for why small successes contribute to motivation.

Small changes implemented over a long period of time compound their value and are the keys to long-term success, according to Darren Hardy, the publisher of Success Magazine. His book, The Compound Effect illustrates his perspective.

A good example of the compound effect is a slow and steady approach to weight loss, which has more sustainable results. Instead of trying to lose weight quickly through restrictive diets, become aware of the foods you put in your mouth. This awareness helps you make small adjustments, which have a significant impact in the long term.

We've all heard about compounding when you're investing in retirement accounts. Start early, even if you invest small quantities, to take advantage of compounding.

Getting it done

An old study compared Japanese cost-reduction programs to similar ones in the United States. Japanese companies on average had 300 times more suggestions per employee, yet the average value associated with each idea was only 1/50 that of the U.S. companies. However, in the end, the Japanese companies saved 20 times more per employee than the U.S. companies.

This report indicates why so many idea-driven innovation initiatives fail. Instead of asking for small, incremental changes that we can implement quickly with little or no funding, most U.S. efforts ask for larger changes that require time and investment. The Japanese companies had a rate of adoption and implementation almost three times higher, with an eight times higher participation rate.

Making small changes to great effect

Making small changes is a good habit for companies and individuals to adopt. I developed a very simple technique called "3-cubed 30."

In a nutshell, three times a week, implement three activities to help your business grow. Each of these should take less than 30 minutes. The investment per week is a maximum of 4.5 hours, yet the benefits can be huge. In reality, it will only take about two hours most weeks to complete all nine tasks.

Here's what this looks like in my business.

Monday - I focus on making sales. I call former clients and prospects, enact part of my direct-marketing campaign or write an article. Each task takes less than a half an hour and must be measurable. Did I call my client? Did I write copy for my direct-marketing campaign?

I can easily determine if I accomplished what I set out to do. These activities are action-oriented, and typically involve making connections with clients, prospects or markets.

Wednesday - I execute three things designed to expand my business. Taking actions that help generate money without having to work is passive income. I could call a potential joint-venture partner, contact a prospective licensee or connect with a company that's interested in putting my content into an e-learning system. Again, each activity should take less than 30 minutes. Many will take only a few.

Friday - I focus on innovation. I could identify new products, uncover potential markets or develop new insights. Given that these tasks are innovative in nature, it's important to make sure I'm asking the right questions before looking for solutions. Or, as Albert Einstein reputedly said, "If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions."

So, along with tasks that do something, there are some very useful "thinking" tasks.

  • Research a particular market I want to enter.

  • Frame important questions to resolve.

  • Identify my knowledge gaps and find the people who can fill those gaps. (This doesn't necessarily mean reaching out to them.)

  • Think about what matters most to me and my business.

Each week I perform nine growth-oriented tasks. By the end of the year, I have taken nearly 500 steps.

Benefits of incremental action

This process provides a number of benefits.

  • Taking small actions and accomplishing them can make you feel good about yourself. According to Dr. Amabile, that increases motivation and performance.

  • Deliberate and measurable action compounds benefits. When I talk to three people in a day, they often connect me with other people, who in turn connect me with others. Slowly, I'm amassing a large network of interested parties. This is Darren Hardy's compounding effect in action.

  • Because the changes are small and quickly implementable, they are more likely to come to fruition. As we saw with the Japanese cost-cutting study, it is easier to facilitate a lot of small actions than it is to take one large one that is hard to deconstruct. (Please note: That cost-cutting study does not negate the importance of challenge-driven innovation, which I feel has the greatest impact on long-term success. See "Stop Asking for Ideas," for more on challenge-driven innovation.)

These activities can go a long way toward helping improve your business and your life. If you conduct these small tasks properly, they often helps you uncover larger opportunities. Although those opportunities might not be accomplished in under 30 minutes, they are often the source of competitive breakthroughs.

The three sets of three questions are designed specifically for my business. But the principles can be applied to any business of any size.

What will be your 3-cubed-30 strategy?

Image credit: kizilkayaphotos via iStockphoto