Start with the big idea

Sloes - sWhy you need to aim for a sack-full of change…

Even though both of my kids are now well into their “too cool for school” teenage years, an undercurrent of enthusiasm for Christmas remains. Maybe slightly diminished, a bit more nuanced and pragmatic, less ebullient perhaps, but that vestige of interest is enough to make their parents look forward to decorating the tree, stockpiling gifts, and decanting various gins off the brambles and sloes, ready for drinking.

The first year that we went foraging for sloes, I suggested we pick at least a kilo or two, so we could make three or four bottles. My wife’s response was rather more measured: we’ve never made it, we don’t know it will be any good, the gin is quite expensive, and we only ever drink it at Christmas. She sensibly reined in my bullishness, we gathered about a pound of the bitter blue berries, and made a bottle’s worth of sloe gin.

It took six months to make, another six to mature, and it disappeared in six days. We ended up with a shop-bought bottle for Christmas. Five years on, and this Autumn I was dispatched to forage over five kilos, to freeze and to fuel the now-permanent sloe gin factory said wife seems to have created in one of our cupboards. How times change.

I’ve been reminded of that experience many times since, not least in the last few months, as people have spoken with me about strategies and reorganisations, about the changes they need to design in order to get their organisations through this year and prepare for the next. I’m reminded because of how they respond when I use bullish phrases like “fundamentally review”, “entirely rethink”, “radically redesign” – they invariably rein me in.

“We probably don’t need to be thinking quite that dramatic,” their measured sensibility replies. But here’s the thing. To start with, you do.

In every organisation, in some way, shape or form, most people are attached to what the organisation currently does; how it operates; where it participates; who it serves. They are emotionally invested in big chunks of the status quo. And so, they will all have sensible and measured reasons for diluting any ambitions for change.

Like an inverse compound interest, with every conversation, that starting ambition for change becomes a little bit less bullish, a little bit more pragmatic and nuanced, and slightly, steadily, diminished.

I appreciate the fear that if you start off too radical, you’ll scare the horses. But my experience is, if you start off radical, you open the floodgates to a wealth of options, ideas and enthusiasm that a more pragmatic, toned-down approach could never generate.

I understand the concern that if you end up too radical, you might “break” the organisation, or damage the most precious areas that you most need to protect. But my experience is that built-in conservatism, that measured sensibility embedded across the team, will always, always bring the most radical ideas back to a pragmatic, thoughtful place before you finally get to push the button.

What I’ve learned is this: if you’re going to pick sloes, you start by thinking big, and pick an absolute sack-full. You’ll be amazed at results you get, if you end up with too many sloes they freeze really well, and ultimately, if you don’t pick them, they’ll only waste away on the tree.

It’s exactly the same if you’re going to create change. You have to start by thinking big and get all the options on the table – you’ll be amazed at the engagement and ideas you get back. If you end up with too many, most of them can be “frozen”, but if you don’t let them out in the first place, the opportunities they represent will just waste away on the tree.

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