Thinking Small

The problem with “changing the world” is that it probably involves invoking impossibly superficial means to address oversimplified problems.

This is spring conference season in philanthropy, filled with such events as Skoll World Forum, the Council on Foundations annual conference, and the Global Philanthropy Forum (streaming live). At all of these conferences, there will be an invocation to dream big, to think big, to set audacious goals, and to reach for the stars—to believe in the power of social entrepreneurs, or foundations, or grassroots communities, or individuals to change the world.

Grand plans and expansive visions will be the order of the day.

I think we’d get a lot more value from these conferences if they encouraged people to think small.

Recently I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Jane Jacobs’ classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I stumbled across this: “The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.” I had a moment of depression thinking of how apropos that sentence is today—especially during conference season—even though it was written almost 40 years ago.

And it is apropos. A similar thought was powerfully expressed by Kathryn Schulz, in a terrific essay in New York Magazine about the spate of “Big Idea” books that have come to dominate the nonfiction shelves: “Solutions are not one size fits all; they are in fact, maddeningly bespoke. That’s because neither problems nor people are fungible.”

The problem with big dreams and big visions and “changing the world” is that it almost necessarily involves assuming that problems and people are fungible, and invoking impossibly superficial means to address these oversimplified problems.

This isn’t a cynical argument that change is impossible (it’s another way of advocating for patient optimists) and we should throw up our hands. It’s an argument that big changes don’t come from thinking big, but from thinking small. That by the way is one of the core themes of Abhijit Banerjee’s and Esther Duflo’s new book Poor Economics, which I highly recommend. In closing their book, they offer some succinct advice of the type that I wish was more on display during conference season:

  1. Resist lazy, formulaic thinking that reduces people and problems to the same set of general observations and principles.
  2. Listen to people and force yourself to understand the logic of their choices.
  3. Subject every idea, no matter how commonsensical, to rigorous testing.

The next time you’re urged to “think big,” give thinking small a try. The world will be better for it.

Read more stories by Timothy Ogden.

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  • BY Matthew Scharpnick

    ON April 13, 2011 05:26 PM

    This idea of thinking small is interesting in the context of agile processes, where prototyping becomes more important than planning years ahead all at once.  Things move quickly these days.  It makes sense to start small.  After that perhaps you move on to the next small solution, or maybe you stumble upon something that can scale, in which case this idea of thinking about big grand solutions can be great.

    As a designer, my partner and I are going to devote a significant portion of the next 6 months to a simple local tool to help educators do their job better.  Maybe it will scale, or maybe we will move on to the next small project in, I dont know, nutrition.

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  • BY Tim Ogden

    ON April 15, 2011 09:01 AM


    Thanks for your comment. I think your analogy gets it exactly right. In many other areas of endeavor we’ve learned the value of small, incremental but rapid prototyping. Indeed, that’s among the hottest topics in entrepreneurship now: lean start-ups. It’s all based around the idea of doing lots of small things, learning as you go, and seeing where success takes you.

    I hope we can see more of that mentality in the philanthropy world.


  • BY David Pell

    ON April 15, 2011 11:34 AM

    Well stated! I am very tired of the ‘big solution strategy’. At Street Kids International we work with a network of locally based partners and although we share the goal of fostering youth entrepreneurship the approach and outcomes vary from location to location. Geography, history and culture to name a few impact how our colleagues go about their work.  The key to scaling up is related to the building of active relationships that are mutually beneficial between the ‘owners’ of each of the small scale ventures.  Optimal results will be achieved if effective collaboration can be achieved.

  • BY Jerr Boschee

    ON April 19, 2011 11:38 AM

    If you are searching for people who are focused on starting small, then the best conference of the year will be the 12th Social Enterprise Summit in Chicago November 2-4.  The vast majority of the people attending (more than 700 last year) are in the process of starting or growing a social enterprise.  Collectively, “social enterprise” is indeed a “big idea” and a “movement”—but, individually, each social enterprise (or at least the successful ones) knows the value of thinking big but acting small.  My favorite analogy about “movements” is the westward trek of the wagon trains in the United States in the late 1800s:  From a distance, all you could see was a long line of wagons moving slowly across the Midwestern prairies and the Rocky Mountains—but up close you saw a huge number of individual families, each of which pulled up stakes and took a risk on a better future.  I’m an incrementalist.  i’ve been involved in the social enterprise field for more than 30 years now.  Yes, it’s a “big idea” and it’s grown into a “movement,” but it has done so only because a huge number of individuals have pulled up their socks and taken a risk on a better future for themselves, the people they serve and their planet.

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