The Little Things Make the Biggest Difference

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Those of you who have attended my sessions, or read my book, know that I’m a storyteller by nature.  I like to use—some might even say, overuse—metaphors and analogies from my personal life to convey points in a way that resonates with my audience. Occasionally, I may embellish or flat out make up stories to emphasize a point and when I do, I make it a point to be straight about that. Most of the time, however, I don’t tell stories because I’m scrambling to try and find some that are relevant to my point, but because I can trace every lesson I have ever learned back to its roots in a story of my life: a sequential experience of related events that sparked a transformative realization in my life as soon as I saw the thread that connected them all together. So, when I tell a story for my audience, I do so with the intent to invoke in them the same kind of valuable insight that the experiences of my life invoked in me.

As a result of this, I have conditioned myself to ask at regular intervals of my life, “What lesson can I glean from this situation?” And I have always been amazed at just how applicable the lessons from even the most “insignificant” of everyday life experiences are to leadership, personal development, and culture transformation.

In today’s post, I’d like to share a lesson I learned recently, with the intention to encourage you to look for valuable insights in your everyday experiences. To give you the punchline upfront, the lesson is that the little things make the biggest difference.

So, we recently decided to screen in our back porch so we can hang out there without worrying about bugs, and so we can leave the French doors that open to the porch open and create a nice flow when we have big parties. Much to my wife’s chagrin—though not to her surprise—I was toying with the idea of taking on this project myself for a while, possibly because I have an inflated view of my abilities when it comes to building and fixing things. Eventually, much to everyone’s benefit, I gave in to just having a contractor do it.

Fortunately, we know a fellow who does impeccable work and is just a joy to be around and he gave us a good price, so we were happy to have him do the work. The first couple of days as he took down the old railings and put up the columns and built the knee wall, and so on, I remember thinking to myself, “I could have done that!” And, truth be told, I believe I could have probably figured out most of what needed to be done during that stage. A few days later, as he started trimming the walls and columns and doing some of the detailed work, however, I was feeling relieved that we had hired him and that I wasn’t having to deal with figuring all of that out.

And now that he is working on putting on the detailed trimming and caulking and painting, I am abundantly clear that had I taken this project on, it would have taken me 4 times as long and it wouldn’t have been half as good; not because I could not have figured out the big things, but because I don’t have the tools, expertise, experience, or the patience to attend to the little things. At various times in my life, I have tried my hand at minor construction jobs and have been met with considerable success; I have built an 8’x16’ storage shed in the backyard and, I dare say, a luxury treehouse that resembled a real house for my kids, among other things. So, I’m pretty sure I could have figured out how to frame the walls of the porch to house the screens. But in this case, being able to do the big things like that would have made no difference because I would not have been able to execute the little things – the details – anywhere as well as our contractor has. And when it comes to the work of an amateur vs. a professional, or a novice vs. a master, the little things are where the difference shows up.

As I reflect on my thoughts during this process, it is clear to me that organizations often fall into the same trap of doing the big things that bring with them a false sense of accomplishment, only to fall short on the little things that really make all the difference. We spend millions of dollars on fancy computer systems, but fail to think about and plan for how the humans in our workplace are going to interface with them. We spend countless hours debating the wording we should use in our vision statement and slogans and we roll them out to the organization with a bang, and then we neglect to carry the message forward and support the organization in embedding those aspirations into the way they work. We roll out training plans and spend tons of time and money on dipping people into a program and we think that just because everybody has a thick binder and all kinds of notes in it, they will now magically behave differently.

The bottom line is that we, as leaders, are lulled into a false sense of accomplishment when we do the big things, and we consequently end up overlooking the little details that are responsible for ensuring true progress and results. We make sweeping changes to systems and teams that look dramatic and radical, but neglect to follow through and lead the transition to the end state we desire to create on the front lines. We misuse the 80/20 rule, and we focus on the 20% of the work that gives us the biggest feeling of accomplishment rather than the 20% that makes the difference for every team member who is genuinely trying to do their best to create a win for the organization. It's like training in preparation for a marathon, leading the race the whole way, and then losing at the end because you decided to stop when you got close to the finish line.

A parallel to this from a business perspective would be to do everything you can to design and advertise and launch a product, but move on to the next thing as soon as that happens. If you don’t ever pay any attention to whether the consumers are buying your product or not, or to what they like or dislike about it and, you never engage with them to make sure that the need you intended to fulfill for the consumers was indeed fulfilled, simply because you are working on the next hot  item, you don't realize the potential of the effort you put in in the first place. Although, this scenario also happens too frequently than it should, it is not nearly as prevalent as it is in the organizational context. When it comes to a launching a product or service, at some point somebody will notice that because we neglected the little things, our product is not selling or we are inundated with tons of negative feedback, and they will get in action, albeit reactively, to solve the problem. As far as organizational health is concerned, it is not nearly as easy to pick up on the immediate and specific impacts if you are not looking for the right signals, and there is a lot more room to either miss the signs of an unsuccessful organizational initiative or intentionally rationalize them away as a result of factors beyond anyone’s control.

It is important to recognize that transforming the culture and results of an organization requires tedious attention to detail. Yes, it must involve the big things–the declaration of the vision, the visible signs of our intentions, and noticeable changes that clearly convey the message that something is different–but the real transformation happens because of the culmination of hundreds, if not thousands, of everyday experiences that team members have before they make a decision to truly embrace the new culture or direction. The fact is, 99% of people’s time in any given year is spent outside of the annual strategy deployment presentations and the quarterly updates. After the first few days of a culture shift, the new signs and banners become the wallpaper that nobody pays any attentions to. Granted, those are the big things and they must be designed and delivered in a way that facilitates the understanding and adoption of the values and the vision of the organization, but if the experience people have 99% of the time does not match what has been declared and we make no effort in creating the right context and instilling confidence that we intend to behave according to our declarations, all the slogans in the world and every single promise from the podium will fall on deaf ears.

Coming back to the screened-in porch for a moment, the other point that became clear to me is that when it comes to hiring someone to do a job, it is important to recognize that just about everybody who has done a few projects of a similar type is going to be able to figure out the basics of getting things done, in this case, putting up some columns and framing the windows, etc. But what makes all the difference is the deep experience and ingrained expertise of the professional to round out the finishing touches in such a way that the final product meets or exceeds the original intent. I have seen too many organizations spend thousands of dollars in their organizational initiatives and then cut corners on engaging the right external resources. As a client of mine—who heard me speak at a recent event and has now hired me to deliver a keynote at their company-wide event—put it, there are a lot of poseurs out there who can deliver a talk and give a presentation but not necessarily connect with the audience in a way that causes their message to sink in and make a difference.

I am grateful for the caliber of clients whose continued patronage reinforces the fact that there are those out there that see and understand the value of the little things when it comes to leadership development and culture transformation. One of the greatest joys of my professional life, particularly in this phase, is that I get to work with people who are clearly committed to nurturing the organization and are not just looking for someone to dip their people in some one-size-fits-all training or check a box for having delivered a speech; they want someone who will truly do the due diligence on the front end to understand the audience and meet their specific needs. I have an average of 2-3 discovery calls with clients prior to any engagement, big or small, to make sure I understand what the organization stands for, what they take pride in, what challenges they face, etc. So, when I show up to deliver a talk or conduct training or engage with an organization as a catalyst, I am already speaking their language and can express ideas and generate conversations in a way that I know resonates with them. I personally know numerous people who offer the same services as I do, and I have the greatest respect for many of them who also pay attention to the little things that make the difference. For us, showing up and doing the big things that we do is something that we assume anybody in our profession can do, but what we truly take pride in is handling the little things in a way that makes the biggest difference. We are in the business of the finishing touches that create the moment of truth that causes someone to truly accept accountability for the transformation they are out to cause and be empowered by it going forward.

I encourage you to pay attention to the little things that you and the external resources that you engage are doing. Don’t be too hasty to declare victory when you implement a change. Celebrate the milestones but tend to the details of the transition until you see the manifestation of sustainable gains before you put thing in auto pilot. 

Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things [...] I am tempted to think [...] there are no little things.
— Bruce Barton

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Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

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