Transformation: Start With Small Steps

November 22, 2019

Critical Takeaways

  • A recent Kith post urged organizations to transform in order to become risk resilient, rather than just taking small, incremental steps improving what’s already in place.
  • Some readers felt that this was unrealistic and wondered if taking small steps would still generate improvement.
  • Any small improvement is worthwhile and transformation itself begins with small steps but the long-term goal should still be to strive for transformation.

A recent post discussed what should be done once the crisis dies down and we closed with a discussion of how organizations can change: incrementally or through full transformation. The point we made was that incremental change might not be enough to make an organization genuinely resilient. Instead of merely becoming a revised version of itself, we suggested that real transformation was required: the aim should be to rise transformed as a phoenix, not just a version 2.0 of what existed previously. 

After publication, some people raised concerns (which we love by the way – please keep your feedback coming) on the issue of incremental change versus transformation. I also had two conversations not long afterwards, which also touched on this point.

The first conversation arose during a risk mapping workshop. We were using a basic four-box matrix grading likelihood and impact as either low or high, the kind of thing you will have seen many times before. When we were looking at low likelihood / high impact issues, one participant noted that he struggles to get his Operations team to engage with this kind of scenario. Their point of view is that some events are such low likelihood that these aren’t worth discussing. However, the Communications Manager wanted to prepare for some very high impact scenarios – for example, a ruptured pipeline – because the consequences would be enormous. Unfortunately, he was fighting an uphill battle trying to get Operations to engage due to their perception that such an event was very unlikely.

Around the same time, I had a communications leader from a mining company reach out, noting that their management team doesn’t even discuss reputational issues. This means that there’s no venue for them to have a conversation about this kind of risk. 

In both cases, the feedback we got was that our ‘be a phoenix, not a V2.0 concept’ felt like an all or nothing choice. For these two managers, and several other readers, they felt that transformation was unrealistic, so they wanted to know if incremental steps were OK.

The short answer is yes: incremental changes are better than no change.

Moreover, as the Chinese philosopher Laotzu quote says, “a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step” and your journey to transformation will be the same. So starting with small, incremental steps is not only OK, it’s the only way to start. 

The full quote provides some other good advice.

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”


Therefore start small, start while things are easy and start as early as possible. The most important thing is to start.

In the case of the pipeline and minerals companies, they could start small by finding an area of risk that their operations teams are willing to discuss. Then, over time, they can segue into the areas they want to address:

“Now we’ve dealt with high likelihood / high impact scenarios, why don’t we turn to the less likely scenarios?”

“If we’ve finished with all the operational and health and safety risks, I’d like to spend some time on something a bit more abstract like reputation?”

Once they normalize these kinds of discussion and have mitigated the original set of risks, then they can move towards the areas which had been sticking points previously. I guarantee that by starting in their counterparts’ comfort zones and taking these small steps, these two communications leaders will be able to tackle the issues that concern them.

 So start small and don’t try to boil the ocean. Apply something simple like our SPE framework and use these worksheets to help you take those first steps. Begin a conversation with your operations team, build trust between those that produce the products and those that sell them. Any step is a step in the right direction and these small changes will improve your organization’s crisis readiness.

But – and I’m afraid there is a but – a few small, incremental steps by themselves aren’t enough. Therefore, once you’ve taken those first initial small steps, you need to take bigger and bigger steps. Build upon those initial successes and develop the momentum you need to transform and become genuinely resilient. 

So do take those initial small steps. Just keep your eyes on the ultimate prize as you do so.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.