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The Power of Small Things


There is a cognitive bias called “The Law of Symmetry” whereby we associate large effects with large causes and small effects with small causes, even though this is not always the case. For example, people often assume that significant historical events must have been caused by equally significant factors, when they may have actually been triggered by minor or accidental events.

The takeaway is that, counterintuitively, there may be times when a small management change yields big results. For example, in Joey Coleman’s book “Never Lose an Employee Again” he shares the story of a telecoms company where 10% of call centre employees were quitting after the 6-week training period but before their first day on the job. The company realized that these new employees had been hired by a recruiter but didn’t feel any real sense of connection to the company or the manager they would be working with. To address the lack of connection, managers started calling new employees to welcome them to the team and followed up with an email with a friendly photo or video of their new team. The number of employees quitting right after training dropped to close to zero. A small change, just a phone call, made a huge difference.

This story is unbelievable in that a small action could have such a big effect and totally believable when you think about human psychology. It’s easy to quit a not-especially-great job when you don’t feel any personal connection to the company. On the other hand, when you had a conversation with the manager and you know they are looking forward to seeing you start, well it doesn’t feel right to quit without at least giving it a try.

I also interviewed a worker in a light manufacturing company about the high level of engagement there. He pointed to the fact that managers would take a moment to say hi, rather than just walking past. I commented that this seemed like a small thing, but he assured me that it mattered a lot. He had worked at other places and informed me that this kind of small courtesy doesn’t happen everywhere.

Small things can work in the other direction too. After one production unit at a company had worked extra hard to achieve its targets, there was a town hall meeting. The CEO gave the credit for the success to the manager, without mentioning the workers at all. It might seem like a small oversight. Perhaps the workers were meant to understand that they were indirectly being included in the praise. However, they didn’t see it this way. That small oversight created lasting resentment.

One final example comes from the world of continuous improvement. The philosophy of Kaizen celebrates even the smallest improvements to production processes. Each such improvement may be trivial but when you get thousands of them, and under Kaizen you often do, then the impact is substantial.

We should indeed be sceptical of miracle cures whereby a large problem can be easily solved by a small action. At the same time, we mustn’t be misled by the Law of Symmetry bias. Sometimes a small thing will indeed have a large impact for good or ill. Don’t rule out possible small solutions, give them a try and see what happens.


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