The Power of Subtle Change

Massive change often has roots in small things and it’s in these subtle shifts that we might find keys to larger transformation.

There’s a common maxim that means matching like-for-like: massive change requires massive action. This, like many aphorisms, is only partly true.

Complex situations — those with a lot of activity happening on different levels of influence, mechanisms, and timescales — like the ones posed we’re confronted with the early 2020’s bring complexity to greater attention. There’s no shortage of recommendations on what ‘we’ (the world) needs to do to “get out”, “get past”, “go through”, “emerge from” and so on from the current situation.

There’s evidence that small changes done often, in coordination, and rigorously monitored can provide the kind of flexible, dynamic, and adaptive way to create change. But how do we see the small when we are confronted by big issues?

Like many issues of complexity what will best help us see possible options is a shift in our thinking and perception — our mindsets — rather than just plans. A little visual thinking can make a big difference.

From Dualism to Spectrum Thinking

It’s hard not to view things in stark contrasts: good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, just/unjust. While such judgments suit simple or even complicated events, dualistic thinking can become a habit that fails us when approaching complex situations. More useful is viewing things on a spectrum.

A colour spectrum has traces of the neighbouring hues in it as it moves from one shade to another. It’s a useful metaphor for assessing and even plotting activities as it begins to recognize elements of one part in another. It also provides with a more dynamic, granular way of viewing a situation. It also can show more subtly how a small shift can illustrate change. By plotting ideas on a spectrum, we are able to explore what kind of small changes might move us further toward or away from a position we find unattractive or unworkable, while not having to submit to an either/or.

To illustrate, consider things like urban walkability. On one side of the spectrum might be banning automobiles outright while on the other we might find policies designed only for cars. By plotting ideas and solutions along a spectrum we might find some areas where we can have a mix of the two together. This would allow us to detect or determine what small changes we could make to make a difference.

From Two to Three

Another way to approach complex problems is to extend our points of reference from two to three. In the above example, the dichotomy is between cars and walking/movement. While we may find ourselves with creative options, we are still constrained by things that are ‘automobile-like’ and ‘walking/biking-like’. This can cause us to miss alternatives that don’t reasonably fit into either zone.

For example, both models tend to ‘ground’ people and shape our thinking into pathways — literally and figuratively. Path dependencies are those things that shape our thinking and actions by creating figurative and literal paths for our mind and actions to follow. Adding a third dimension to our model we might reframe our choices. I took this approach when viewing the way we understand the practice of design and how it was more than just design thinking or making. In the case of the example above, we might find that our options expand and we see things like the urban gondola systems that are used widely in Latin America. The use of cable-cars provide innovative ways to move people that incorporate a hybrid of different models.

We are also seeing this with elevated bike ‘highways’ that have been created in China and are proposed elsewhere as a means to create certain efficiencies for travel while keeping riders safe from traffic.

Creating that third option allows us to see something we couldn’t before and rather than propose a full-scale change, we can do a small or mid-scale change that could contribute to something bigger.

Visual thinking in these ways can enable us to see subtle differences that make a big difference in shaping our strategy and design for what comes next.

If you’re interested in learning more about what this way of viewing can do for you, contact Cense and we can help you visualize your system to better help you find where you are and where you can go in your innovation journey.

Photos by Valentin Gautier on Unsplash and Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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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