Big Changes Through Small Actions

Our consumption habits will kill our planet if we let it. Small actions, done often, can change our future course.

Shopping is big business. It’s also helping our planet.

Today is Black Friday, which is shaping up to be the largest shopping day of the year in the United States and Canada. In Canada, this has replaced Boxing Day as the biggest sales day.

In China, the biggest shopping day of the year is Singles Day, which generated more than than $38 billion for Alibaba alone.

Canada still has Boxing Day and it won’t surprise me if Singles Day jumps over to North America soon just as Black Friday jumped to Europe (and Christmas holiday shopping has spread all over the world) as global consumption patterns spreads. Pretty soon, we’ll have half a dozen ‘shopping holidays’ to celebrate each year, or season, or….more.

There is an enormous pull from these events — culturally, economically, and systemically. It’s easy for some to dismiss these as capitalism gone mad — which it might be — but it is also something that is part of the culture. Yet, it wasn’t always so.

A terrific send up and explanation of it all is Seth Godin’s recent Akimbo podcast looking at cohesion and commerce. Godin looks at the history of Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and the origin of CyberMonday (another ‘shopping holiday’) and points to the way culture is created, evolves, and how it can be resisted — or re-created. It’s worth a listen.

Cohesion, Culture, and Community

At the heart of Godin’s argument is that what commerce is doing is piggy-backing on culture on one hand and creating it with another. The players involved often have a high profile, lots of money, and platforms for which they can operate such as gigantic department stores (in the 1920’s and 30’s, when the modern Macy’s Day parade began to kick off the ‘holiday season’ for shopping) or online clout like Amazon, who has their own ‘Prime Day‘ to add to our list of ‘shopping holidays’.

The technological tools that come together through (increasingly) pervasive media — multi-platform, social, AI-directed, and mobile — are powerful that the presence of these ‘events’ are nearly impossible to ignore, whether or not we choose to participate in them. Take sales — perceptions of saving money, gaining a product, ‘getting a deal’, — and amplify them with such things as ‘1-click shopping’ and ‘door-crasher specials’ that are time-limited, easy to access, and culturally embraced and we effectively have a system that is hacking into our deepest motivational systems.

What makes this so difficult is that we humans are wired to want to belong. Community — however defined in practice — is about that shared culture and practices. This might be through what we do, how we talk (and what we talk about), what we look like, and, yes, what we buy and display. This is a powerful force that shapes who we are. How we set ourselves up to engage these forces is really what shapes our cultural practices that emphasize some of these qualities over others — listen to Godin for more on this.

Big Change, Small Actions

Our planet — and our wallets — can’t afford these holidays. We need to make major changes. The question is how? Putting aside the bigger conversation we must have as a society about the world we want for a moment, there are some things that we as individuals can do now to begin to make these massive changes happen.

Psychologist B.J. Fogg has studied behaviour change and believes the answer is in small changes done many times over. Fogg’s work on habit formation comes from decades working in Silicon Valley where companies have mastered the ability to form habits (some might argue addictions) in people. As Fogg discusses in this talk below (and expands in a forthcoming book on the subject) the answer to making big change is to start with making small changes, well.

James Clear in his recent book provides another take on this idea of ‘small changes’ in what he calls ‘atomic’ habits, which includes work on the theory of marginal gains. Taken together, both Fogg and Clear point to ways substantial changes in a system can be achieved through small changes and ‘tiny habits’ done persistently over the long term.

If this was the end of the story we’d be set, but there is one thing that we need to introduce to be honest with ourselves: complexity.

Wrestling Complexity

The River I Step in is Not the River I Stand In – Heraclitus

In his book, James Clear uses the example of the British cycling team’s rise from mediocrity to world title contenders in just a few years through the use of marginal gain theory and ‘atomic habits.’ What’s interesting is that after the book was written Clear came back to the case study and found that all of the changes anticipated hadn’t fully been realized over the long-term (including because of suspected doping among the team).

There are few solid empirical studies of long-term change using this approach, yet much anecdotal evidence. The reason to both embrace and suspect both sources of evidence is that they are affected by complexity. A persistent change is assumed to be largely linear in its progression with one adaptation scaffolded on another.

What is missed is that the system around that person or activity also changes and adapts. The entire enterprise of commerce is like a game of cat-and-mouse. Consumers change, retailers change with them or vice-versa. When we evaluate our impact or develop our strategy, we need to consider the effects of the system’s adaptations to our changes as well as what we’re setting out to do.

What ‘works’ at one scale or level may not produce the same results at a different one. The performance and activities need to modify to meet the changing conditions. However, small changes done persistently are far easier to adapt and design for than large-scale changes. It’s the reason why, save for large catastrophic or uncontrollable changes, that massive, singular efforts to affect change don’t produce sustainable results.

For change-makers some questions arise:

  • How do we maintain commitment to small changes over time?
  • What kind of feedback systems do we put in place to evaluate the impact of each small change?
  • How can we attune our monitoring and strategy to the wider system to understand the adaptations that it makes in response to our actions?
  • What stories can we tell about the journey?
  • How may we design our systems better to make change happen consistently and adapt and evaluate as we go, sustainably?
  • What forces are shifting the system and how powerful are they (because not all change agents are equal in their influence)?

Maybe if we buy into this, we might find ourselves making better, smaller changes over time and transforming our systems along with it.

Note: Want to think this way? Interested in helping your team build a change and innovation culture? Reach out to me at Cense — we’ve got lots to talk about.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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