One lesson for leaders from the First World War

This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the first world war.

This horrific war claimed millions of lives and countless others were injured or damaged (including my grandfather.

There are many lessons from this scaring experience but I would like to focus on one.

A small change can have a very big impact

The immediate cause of World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary.

This assassination led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia.

When Russia began to mobilise due to its alliance with Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia.

And due to an extensive array of other defence alliances all the major countries and empires found themselves at war.

This coupled with the rise of imperialism, militarism and nationalism led to (perhaps) a mad rush to war.

But the trigger was the assassination of the Archduke — in the scheme of things a very small action but with a terrible impact.

Lessons for leaders

We like to think that only big changes can lead to big impacts.

But as this example proves sometimes a small change can have enormous impact.

Perhaps there is a lesson for leaders here.

Even the smallest actions can sometimes have a big and often unintended impact.

Perhaps leaders underestimate the power of this approach.

It could be changing meeting times from 1 hour to 45 minutes for example.

Or encouraging every leader to spend 1 hour per week with a customer or client or a new employee.

Or to insist that every meeting start on time.

But why does this disproportionate effect occur?

The answer to this question might come from complexity theory.

This is the study of how living systems operate in a non-linear way.

This can be explained as such:

In a complex system, small changes can lead to larger effects, which in turn lead to ever larger effects.

This snowballing effect is one thing that distinguishes living systems from mechanical systems, where small changes only lead to small effects.

This is sometimes called the “Butterfly Effect” because a butterfly flapping its wings in India may influence air currents that eventually lead to a windstorm in Chicago.

In a Complexity organization, one person may discover something new, other people in the organization may “flock” to this discovery, and in a short time the change has swept through the organization.

This is more likely to happen in a Complexity organization where there is a high degree of flexibility and communication, but it can happen in any complex system – often in unpredictable ways.

For example, the decisions of a few al Qaida members to seize jet planes and crash them into the World Trade Center had enormous effects on the American economy and ultimately the whole world – far greater than anyone expected.

Applying this approach to innovation

The idea that small changes can have a big impact is the idea behind our new small wins innovation approach.

The consistent testing of new and different ideas and solutions to everyday problems and people’s lives can have a cumulative impact an organisation’s collective learning, progress and productivity.

It means that innovation is suddenly becomes simpler, quicker and easier.

The key lesson?

For leaders to be on the lookout to make small yet important changes or actions — everyday.

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