To Drive Macro Business Changes, Think Micro

As brands strive to deliver their strategies in 2024, it’s easy to think big changes require equally large processes

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How do you turn a ship when thousands of tons of water are pressing on the rudder creating a force far greater than the ship’s engines can withstand? This was the seemingly impossible challenge solved by the wonderful engineer, Buckminster Fuller, in the 1940s.

The answer was something surprisingly small. A six-inch piece of metal, a tiny rudder, attached to the big rudder and applying just enough pressure to make it turn. So the little rudder turned the big rudder and that, in turn, began to move the ship. This engineering marvel was named the “trim tab.” A tiny element that, when applied at the right place in a system, will have an outsized impact.

As brand teams strive to deliver their strategies in 2024, it’s easy to get swept up in the notion that big changes require equally large processes. And while big initiatives are often necessary and powerful, we mustn’t overlook the power of the micro shifts that, in the case of the trim tab, can turn the ship around.

That said, we are all guilty at times of succumbing to the pressure to make big bets to drive growth in a tough business environment. But big bets require big investments and can bring similarly big risks. In drawing inspiration from the trim tab, businesses can locate their places to disrupt the system to have an outsized effect.

Such “trim tabs” exist across all complex systems (businesses included) and locating them can have a huge positive impact. Just as trim tabs change the flow of water, so we need to change the flow of information, money and power.

What success can look like

New technology can bring about these changes in flow. Just as Photoshop changed the way we processed images—aiding sales of Macintosh computers along the way—so generative software such as Stable Diffusion or ChatGPT will alter the way images and text are generated, with implications for both creativity and staffing.

Ozempic and other diet drugs will affect healthcare by reducing the number of obese people, but also, potentially airlines, as they have to carry less weight on take off. Even innocuous technological innovations, such as the Oyster card on London’s Underground network enable easier travel and, importantly, effective planning as travel flows can be more easily evaluated.

Technological change tends to operate by changing processes. But what if we simply change the processes themselves? Often process interventions are even more subtle, yet further reaching.

We all know about changing the defaults, for example, where people were automatically opted in, rather than automatically opted out, on pension provision in the U.K.. This changed participation from 36% to 71%, meaning that 400,000 more people were enrolled in a pension than would have been previously. This led to over £114B in pension savings over 10 years and reduced savings gaps across income, occupation and age groups.

Researchers have also shown that by changing the order in which various options were presented when specifying a new car, buyers spend more €1,482.37 per car. Introducing a five-point checklist at Johns Hopkins reduced the incidence of infections in a type of intravenous catheter that goes into the heart from 11% of cases to zero, a simple process change that they estimated saved 43 infections, eight deaths and $2M in costs.

In all of these cases small, relatively innocuous changes, have produced big effects. When looking for potential small changes within your organization, you need to apply a level of discipline to your approach. There are behaviors you can adopt so, as we head into planning for next year, you can resist the pressure to focus only on big bets and think small instead.

How to locate your own ‘trim tabs’

By looking for some of these leverage points (places within a complex system), you too can locate a small shift that can lead to big changes.

Listen to the system

Lean into internal and customer feedback. Engage employees at all levels for their insights into where small changes can lead to improvements. Often, frontline employees have valuable perspectives on pain points and opportunities. Analyze customer surveys and pay attention to recurring requests or complaints that could highlight a leverage point.

Wheels within wheels

Sometimes the most powerful effects are seen when one process feeds into another (just as when the trimtab movement feeds into the rudder, which feeds into the ship). Look for linked processes as you can benefit from leverage effects, magnifying your initial effort.

Go pattern-spotting

Use statistical tools and trend analysis to identify patterns that may suggest leverage points. For example, identifying a feature that significantly improves customer retention can be a leverage point for overall growth. Conversely, removing a bottleneck can unleash new opportunities.

Embrace controlled experimentation

Small-scale tests and pilot programs aren’t just a good way of testing campaigns or product innovations. Apply the same “test and learn” mindset in new areas such as internal ways of working and other organizational redesigns. Asking willing teams to test some new approaches and theories is a good way of making them active and engaged participants in the planning process.

While we may not all possess the engineering prowess of Buckminster Fuller, every organization harbors the capability to seize upon the small, to deliver big change. Though not all of us want to turn the ship around or set a new course, we may still want to enjoy a better journey.