We often hear two seemingly contradictory statements from change agents:
- A series of small steps is the best way to get something done.
- You can’t cross a chasm in two small steps.
Both are true, but neither are sufficient at fully capturing reality.
There are two dynamics of change that we have to consider. The first dynamic is what I’m calling the stepping dynamic, and the second dynamic I’m calling the tipping dynamic. Both are real facets to the evolution of ourselves and the world.
Consider how an avalanche builds. Proponents of the stepping model would show that it’s just a series of snowflakes that stack on top of each other, but that doesn’t quite capture the dynamic tip that happens at the moment the snow starts moving. On the other hand, proponents of the tipping model often don’t account for the fact that without all those snowflakes, the tip would never occur.
The real challenge isn’t the conceptual distinction between the two dynamics of change, but, rather, it’s recognizing when we should step and when we should make room for a tip.
Get to Stepping!
If you guessed that I’m a proponent of the stepping model, you get half a cookie.
One of the reasons I’m such an advocate of small steps is because it’s the dynamic that we have the most control and influence over. We can’t single-handedly manifest the conditions for a tipping point, but we can show up and set those conditions through a series of small actions.
Consider the fact that you don’t become a true master in your craft all at once. There’s a long trail of experience, practice, and evaluation that goes into mastery, and without the butt-in-seat time, you’ll never get there. Yet many people never start the long trail of mastery because they (correctly) assess that they’re not good at what they’re trying to master.
No one starts out being good at anything. Aside from the marginal advantages we get from our genetics, everything is learned. And, for someone to learn, they have to be taught, either by someone else or by themselves. The former tends to be more successful, but it’s sometimes not a live option.
Yet, at some point, taking small steps gets in the way of the metamorphosis that needs to happen. One day you wake up and you are a real expert, and not recognizing that keeps you from making the contributions that you can make.
If you’re doing your best work, you’ll always be on the edge of your capabilities and comfort levels. Imagine a Venn diagram, with your current capabilities in the left circle and your areas of incompetence in the right circle. Learning and growth happens right where those two intersect. Doing your best work will thus require you to constantly be on the verge of failing.
A butterfly doesn’t need to cling to the same branches it did as a caterpillar.
How a Caterpillar Takes to the Air
The tipping dynamic of change is so challenging due to how radical it is. Take, for instance, the person who has recently become a celebrity. Last month, she was just another person trying to be heard and seen, and now everyone wants some of her. Old habits, perspectives, and relationships change regardless of whether she means for them to.
What’s often forgotten at this phase is all the steps that set up the metamorphosis. That new celebrity forgets that it was her fans and support network that enabled the tip, or that now all-star business forgets that it was a strong customer service and over-delivery ethic that made them who they are. This happens time and time again, and what separates the good-for-a-minute people, projects, and causes and the truly great people, projects, and causes is that the latter makes room for the metamorphosis and then get back to stepping.
It would have been easy for Michael Jordan to rest on the fact that he dominated the court. It would have been easy for Apple to stop innovating with the iPod and play it out. But Michael kept practicing, and Apple keeps innovating. That’s what makes them world-class. They step, tip, reassess, and step all over again.
It’s true that you can’t cross a chasm in two steps, but you have to get there in the first place.
Know Which Dynamic You’re In
There are times when you should step, and there are times when you need to make room for a tip.
If you feel like you’re holding back an avalanche, it’s probably a good indication that you somehow need to make room for a metamorphosis. Let the dam break and see what happens.
If you feel like you’re looking at a long trail that leads to a mountain in the distance, you probably just need to continue taking those steps for now. It’s okay to be where you are, but you don’t have to stay there.
Both dynamics are a part of the world, and there’s a time and place for both. One isn’t any better than the other, either. The trick is figuring out which dynamic is the most appropriate to where you are.
I’ll leave you with two questions:
- If you need to step, do you know what steps to take?
- If it’s time for a tip, how will you make room for it?
If you want to learn more about figuring out your next steps, or how to make room for the things you need to do, Start Finishing will guide you through these dynamics of change.
Karri Flatla says
OMG how balanced a view! (wink)
When you started the bit about Michael Jordan I took a quick breath in and remembered the other Michael who lived and died in that delicate but extraordinary tension between stepping and tipping. (The 2 Michaels were friends I believe.)
What might the world look like if we gave more space to this dynamic? And why is it so difficult for us to hold both sides of change in our minds and our hearts? I wonder.
I also am reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion on the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours to master something.
Our celebrity culture is quick to recognize the 10,001st hour. I can’t help but thinking, however, that our “defining” moments are not as much in the stepping or the tipping …
…but in Hour 9,999.
Brilliant, Karri, and I love your insight on the 10k rule.
I think there are few other really important hours, too. Like Hour 1. And Hour 632 – when you’re not getting the same awesome results you used to but you’re sticking with it anyway.
I think it’s hard because of how often we get stuck in the outcome rather than the process. We can’t control outcomes, but we can control why and how we’re showing up.
The question of whether to step or leap comes up in the context of change in large organizations. Do you have any thoughts on that ? In my experience, it can be difficult to conceive of a “group leap”, but perhaps the organizations steps are made up of leaps made by individual members of the organization when each is ready.
Great comment, and I have a lot of thoughts about organizational change. The bottom line, though, is that there has to be a committed leader and champion for the change that starts a slow campaign to make change happen.
The “leap”, in this context, is the acceptance by the leaders of the organization. After that, the steps are the ways in which the organization implements the new vision.
Adam King says
The avalanche is getting too heavy to hold back lately.
Thanks to your article Charlie, I feel I’m losing my grip all of a sudden. Resistance cannot be sustained for too long without consequence.
Guess I better get the snowboard ready for the epic and sudden ride.
You know, Adam, I’ve been sensing that for you. Enjoy the ride!
First let me say that I thoroughly enjoy your style of writing. 🙂
It is interesting for me to read this this afternoon as I contemplate changes that I want to make in my life. I have been more of a tipper than stepper all of my life, with mixed results.
This post, makes it so clear that one dovetails into the other, that I can now clearly see what to do next(tip) and the steps to take beyond.
Thank you Charlie.
Thanks for the feedback, Stephanie! Hopefully this piece helps you changed those “mixed” results to “consistent” ones. 🙂
Megan Matthieson says
This is beautiful! And such a great example of pulling yourself to the MOMENT. Thanks!
Barbara Calkins says
I’m thinking “Chop wood , carry water” for the small business or solo-preneur.
Thank you Charlie for furthering wisdom. You’ve provided a deep, relieving breath.
Best to you.
I love the “chop wood, carry water” mantra, Barbara! Thanks for sharing it and your feedback.
I really like this question of “how will you make room for a tip?”
Since I specialize in resistance, what I see a lot in those I work with (and myself) is that we’ll feel an impending tip and then a part of us (unconsciously) will stop stepping to slow it’s approach.
Sometimes we avert the tip altogether and only go back to full out stepping when the “danger” has passed. (This cycle can continue for years!) And sometimes the tip comes no matter what and we get stretched and become a little more open to the next one.
And you’ve got me thinking now that engaging consciously in ADVANCE with this question of “how do I make room for a tip?” is incredibly important for any of us who tend to put the brakes on.
Love the insights here, Susan.
Recognizing that there are two natural dynamics helps with the resistance, I think. Many people make the tips be something external, artificial, or unnatural, without recognizing that they’re just as organic as the steps. There’s no special normativity to either modality, so to resist one and embrace the other highlights other things – which can be addressed more directly.
Karri Flatla says
“…we’ll feel an impending tip and then a part of us (unconsciously) will stop stepping to slow it’s approach.”
BINGO! Love how you stated that, Susan. It’s what I was referring to by “Hour 9,999.”
I really like that final hour metaphor, too, Karri! And I agree, it’s very defining, and yet paradoxically, it’s never just one moment either. We come to it again and again.
Great point, despite a seeming paradox there is a time to step and a time to allow the space for the tip.
It’s not an either or but a dance of right timing. The key is knowing which phase you’re in.
Thanks Charlie for the clear insight.
Daily Success Place says
You said, “If you guessed that I’m a proponent of the stepping model, you get half a cookie.
One of the reasons I’m such an advocate of small steps is because it’s the dynamic that we have the most control and influence over”
I am also an advocate of the “step model” as you put it. Benjamin Franklin used a similar model and many have used his steps to success in their own lives.
Use note cards to write down a specific virtue or principle you need to implement. Write down the principle and something to motivate you to do it. Work one only one principle a week and start a new one the next week. Over time, once you keep doing it over and over, the principles you want in your life will become habit.
Just make sure you are making habit of the right values and principles.
I love the last point! Reminds me of the German proverb: “What use is running if you’re on the wrong road?”
What a thought provoking article!! This causes me to think of fear of failure and fear of success. I think I have a fear of success, because I feel peoples expectations of me may get too high. Or the role might be too time consuming. So I’ve always been comfortable as the apprentice instead of the master. Wow you’ve given me alot to think about!!
That’s a common fear, Dandy. What if becoming the master meant fewer expectations and less time consumption? How will you know if you don’t let it happen.
Siddharth M says
I wouldn’t say what you should do – try to be a master or be happy being an apprentice.
My genuine advice (to you and everyone else) would be that you should see what you really are, and when you know what you really are – find out if you want to evolve to something better, and if yes – then do it.
The most important factor here would be let all of it – be spontaneous. That’s it!
It’s that simple for all of us, I think. But the greatest despair is that being spontaneous is the toughest thing for most (or perhaps all) of us. : )
Peter Shallard - The Shrink for Entrepreneurs says
Love this post Charlie.
The thought that popped into my mind as I was reading through was:
Another way of describing this could be “unconscious change” versus “conscious change”.
Our unconscious mind tends to rapidly make connections and learnings, with the ability to radically alter behavior. Meanwhile, conscious-thinking enables us to create change one simple “thought-out” step at a time.
Perhaps reaching a tipping point is such an intuitive non-conscious process that there isn’t much point in trying to make it happen at all. Just go with the flow?
I’d agree. My metacognitive growth really started happening when I let go of how the growth would happen and stopped trying to understand the process. It was enough that it was happening.
That said, it can be hard to trust your intuition at first, especially in a world that doesn’t trust what can’t be measured, documented, or proven.
Sandra Lee says
I too love your writing style and your unique perspective. This is the core lesson I’m taking away from this post: “…the truly great people, projects, and causes is that the latter makes room for the metamorphosis and then gets back to stepping.”
I’m definitely in a stepping phase, but with your inspiration I see how important it is to also let the snow fall in its right time.
You’re welcome, Sandra, and thanks for the feedback!
I really like this concept, Charlie. I can immediately see a new, productive way forward with this knowledge in mind.
Reflecting on my life, I think it’s been a case of step, step, step, create space…. tip
for example, in learning or self development, whilst I have found it important to learn, learn, learn one must create space to then integrate new knowledge in to ‘normal’ life.
It’s in that space (of integration) that I have experienced tips and avalanches.
Thank you for a most insightful post.
Where heading into Ken Wilber’s Integral theory here. I like where you’re going with metamorphisis.
For metamorphasis to be successful, we have to “transcend AND include” what came before.
When we change, we have to take previous steps in our lines of development with us. In other words, when we become famous we need to take our fans with us and keep delivering value and appreciation to them.
Yael Grauer says
I find comfort in knowing that sometimes it’s okay to just take a few small steps… or that you can follow a tip with just a few small steps instead of being constantly in the process of tipping, which can be really destabilizing.
Vlad Dolezal says
You remind me of a related concept that comes from programming.
It’s called “the black triangle” and comes from a company that was developing a computer game. After 2 months of development, the supervisor walks in, and sees the whole development team cheering because of a small black triangle on the screen.
“What’s this all about?” he asks.
And the team explains that in order to get on the screen, the triangle had to pass through all the right underlying systems… in other words, all the preliminary work has been done and it’s working! It’s time to start developing the user-visible part of the game.
I occasionally notice a black triangle in my life, and it makes me happy to see that all the underlying stuff is working 🙂
The difference between your tipping point and the black triangle is simply that one is huge, and the other is almost insignificant in itself… but they both point to a boatload of successful work on the back end.
Love the way how you build out your model. Expertise and mastery definitely can creep up on us. Deciding when to tip and when to step and alternate between the two is definately the money shot in the broadest sense. Thanks for the drilling into the complexity and creating a hole with some light 🙂