Don’t Wait for Big Changes. Do What You Can Now.

I’ve been focusing on change a lot lately.  Thankfully, not because of my day job this time.  This time, it’s more to do with one of the not-for-profit groups I’m involved with.  A couple of other things have planted this bug in my ear, though.  Someone I know told me about the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, which is a fantastic book (so far.  I just got my own copy and am reading it now).  The other thing that got me thinking was an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations I saw recently.  More on both of those later.  The message I want to throw out there is that you can often achieve much better progress making small changes you can make today instead of waiting until there’s buy-in, resources, and removal of obstacles to a much larger effort.  And those smaller changes are likely to have more direct beneficial effect, because contrary to what large corporations like to think, big changes often introduce larger problems.  I have always tried to do this in my personal life and at work, and try to get others to do the same.

Take the aforementioned Anthony Bourdain episode.  He was in Haiti in one of the poorer areas.  He came across this woman selling food on the street.  Anthony noticed her sales were very low and she had too much food, and also that there were many hungry kids around that had no money to buy food.  He talked to the producer, who authorized him to buy her whole supply at full-price and give it out for free to the kids.  Win-win, right?  Wrong.  What ensued was massive fighting over the food, with kids whipping and beating up other kids over who would get the food.  In the end the strong and violent ones got the food, not the most needy.  I’m not trying to criticize Haiti, or even human nature, but point out an example of big change having unintended consequences that helping on a smaller level might not have had.

The book Switch contained an example of a health organization trying to decrease malnutrition in Vietnam with almost no budget and very little cooperation from the local government.  Instead of trying to solve the problems of food distribution, clean water, safe waste disposal, and hygiene, they did a study of what was different about the poor families who were not suffering from malnutrition, and spread those practices (it turned out that doing small changes like feeding kids the same amount of food but four times a day instead of two, and adding a little bit of crab and vegetable to their rice, was enough to make a huge difference).

Here are some personal examples:

  • At a recent job, our software build system was “a bit finicky”, required several steps to do common tasks, and required the same command line parameters again and again.  I could have lobbied for changing the build system, but there was political/emotional commitment to keeping it the way it was.  Rather than tilting at windmills and not getting anywhere, I developed an environment that wrapped those commands, putting all the required steps into simpler commands, and reading the required parameters from environment variables.  I then advertised it and helped others use it too.  Immediate benefit for myself and others, without the political casualties.  At that same job, I spent a fair amount of time documenting what I learned on the intranet wiki as I learned it (I was the first developer they hired in years, so there wasn’t a culture of documenting things the newbies would need), so others that came after me wouldn’t have to go through the same discovery process of mind melding with the Elders.
  • At my current job, our cafeteria uses disposable Styrofoam trays and cups, plastic utensils, and cardboard plates.  In order to reduce my ecological footprint, I bought a plastic tray at Target for $2 and brought in a plate and metal utensils from home.  I just did this a week ago, so nobody has done the same yet, but several have stated that they want to.  I could have petitioned them to switch to plastic trays and real plates, but even if they were willing, they don’t have the facilities or manpower to wash them all.  Instead of waiting for that big change, I am doing what I can now, and leading by example.  I also turn my monitors completely off overnight (the computer has to stay on in case I need to remote in from home).
  • I tend to tip big.  I’ve worked in the restaurant industry (both in corporate and in the restaurants), and understand what those people are going through.  Most people don’t even know their salary is minimum wage less their expected tips.  Yes, if their customers tip poorly, they can make less than minimum wage.  Having been blessed with the desire and ability to work in the software industry for a long time now, I try to spread the wealth a bit.  Sorta like Robin Hood, but I’m stealing from myself 😉
  • Before donating to charities, I research just how much of the money goes towards the cause.  You would be totally shocked if you found out how much money went into just running some of the very large, very popular charity organizations out there.  In fact, some charities even spend money suing other charities.  Others don’t actually spend that much on solutions to their cause.  Do your research to make sure your money goes to what you want it to.  Or help directly.  That’s one reason I tip big.  Anyone working in a customer-facing service industry job needs help, even if it’s a little.  Even if it just makes up for those that don’t tip well.
  • I volunteer for four different not-for-profit groups (one related to helping unemployed people, one related to Agile software development, one related to Linux, and one as part of my religious institution).  There are many reasons why getting involved with groups like this can benefit both you as well as the group (networking, new knowledge and skills, sense of accomplishment, etc), and these are all communities I feel strongly about helping.  All of these groups are trying to help others in the small ways that they can.  In many ways, the unemployment group is much more helpful than the federal or state groups, because they focus on people helping each other and giving out fishing poles instead of fish (small amounts of money the Division of Employment and Training are going to give you for training is not going to do as much good as a group that helps you handle tough interview questions and polish your elevator speech).

Maybe the tendency to do small changes now instead of waiting for big changes comes out of my Agile background, with its short iterations and active tracking of blockers.  Maybe it comes from my strong tendency for action over inaction.  Or maybe it’s just because I’m an impatient New Yorker.  Most of the time, though, hindsight has shown that course to be the right one.  So please, if you want to save the planet (or just your family, your job, or your sanity), strive for small changes you can do today.


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