‘Too big to fail’ is a term spat out by angry citizens frustrated with our government’s handling of the economic crisis. Indeed, the very concept ‘too big to fail’ may be indicative that we’ve not yet come to an important realization: The planet is moving toward smallness and ‘big’ may be more a liability than an asset in the future.
Even as we talk about global markets, global warming and global culture it seems everywhere we look things are trending smaller. Smaller portions. Smaller cars. Smaller processors. Smaller mobile phones. Smaller niche brands. Smaller sound bytes.
In evolutionary terms small is being selected for in many sectors of the economy and aspects of our culture. Here’s why:
We’re abandoning mass production for micro customization.
This is not a new idea. It is fairly easy to see how mass production (Henry Ford’s ‘Any color you want as long as it’s black’) has given away to individual customization (Mini Cooper’s many customized paint options). Alongside production, media is mirroring the trend. The big mass networks simply can’t compete with my ability to find anything I want, on any topic I want, at any time I want online.
Replacing the Industrial Era mentality which favored bigness is an Internet mentality that reflects the Net’s very structure – flat and nodal. (McLuhan would be pleased as this is a true expression of the Medium being the Message).
The evolution of the social web is taking that technical equivalency found online (i.e if the CEO of Coke and I both set up a WordPress blog, on a technical level, we are the same), and amplifying it to impact advertising, entertainment, publishing, organizational efficiency, shopping and distribution.
The overall effect of this is decentralizing. Replacing the idea of ‘rolling up’ a hierarchical pyramid of authority, we now think in terms of sharing ideas, insights and authority across nodes.
The speed of change is forcing our hand.
You can’t turn a proverbial Titanic on a dime. Small is nimble and nimble is an evolutionary advantage. Increasingly, large institutions like governments and churches are proving incapable of keeping up with the times. Legislation is often obsolete by the time it passes through the bureaucratic approval process. People’s lives change faster than church dogma, making sermons feel out of touch with parishoners’ concerns. In financial markets short term volatility, powered by rapidly changing information made readily available in real time, is adversely impacting longterm benefits by scaring people out and enticing them back in in a way that actually undermines overall returns. And of course, as any executive knows, the pressure exerted by quarterly expectation by shareholders disrupts and sometimes compromises longterm strategic planning.
Mind you, the efficiency of any institution may in fact be improving thanks to new technologies. Unfortunately technology alone can’t make us nimble enough. The truth is, the societal pace of change has gotten too fast for many large, traditional, hierarchical organizations to keep up with, despite investments in efficiency-enhancing technologies.
We’re bumping up against some global limits.
Until recently mankind has been on an endless journey of global expansion. America in particular was founded on a manifest destiny mindset where settlers would push west into new frontiers. The goal was a big family living in a big house on a big parcel of land with a big car in the driveway. As mankind has continued to grow our awareness of the true size of our planet has been coming into focus. Top of mind for many is of course the environment and our finite fossil fuel resources. However, food production, living space, room to dump our refuse, the size of marketplaces for various products and the amount of attention we can offer in a day are all being realized for their inherent glass ceilings. Even our ability to process information and do work is reaching some mortal barriers. Multi-tasking is a convenient concept, but scientifically it might not be a realistic expectation.
No doubt there are still frontiers to be discovered, but generally our modern era has been about solving problems of getting more out of existing and limited resources. Doing more with less is another expression of smallness and another evolutionary advantage.
It’s a small world after all.
So if, as I’m suggesting, the world today is rewarding small over large; how might we use this insight to improve our situation? I believe it comes down to thinking small, even if you’re not. Here are some ideas:
Do 1,000 (small) things 1% better. This is the Disney philosophy and it gets right to the individual customization paradigm of the post-industrial world. Rather than try to do one thing 1000% better – which is a tall order with high expectations and a lot of room for disaster – Disney endeavors to make every small experience just a little more special. This series of incremental improvements creates the perception of a single great experience. (One people will pay a premium for too, I might add.) The devil is in the details, exorcise it by doing the details well.
Hearts and Minds, Not Shock and Awe. This will sound like Social Media 101 but it is directly related to individual customization and smallness. Mass marketers used to use coarse demographic data to parse out targets for their mass market campaigns. (Have you ever noticed traditional marketing lingo borrows heavily from military terminology?) The goal was to bludgeon people with a message calculated to address their needs based on this demographic data.
Today’s nodal world doesn’t fit cleanly into geographic, income, racial or other old-school demographic categories. Like everything else in the nodal world, groups have narrow sliced and begun defining themselves on other matters. Entire communities form around wholly different organizing principles than HHI, location or race. To win over these new groups you need to respect their sometimes small differences and seek to understand the context of their lives and how what you’re trying to accomplish fits into their agenda.
Seek small ideas. The old advertising industry focused on selling The Big Idea. This is Bill Bernbach-thinking and it was perfect for the industrial era. Big ideas led to big campaigns targeting big demographic groups through big media channels. That infrastructure no longer exists. Today small ideas executed well make an organization remarkable (to summon Seth Godin’s Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside). Remarkable replicates across the nodal world we live in – it’s worth transmitting. It also more accurately aligns with the way we all engage with the world. There is no dominant medium or channel. Its an accumulation of experiences across channels that define overall perceptions. Lastly, seeking small ideas from across your entire company or organization is inclusive and communal – another strong driver of the Internet era.
Reconcile the time conflict. Expecting mass media timetables in a nodal, micro media world is a recipe for disappointment. Awareness, which used to be predictable by formulating the right blend of TV, radio and print advertising is today much harder to predict. It also takes longer due to the very fragmentation that has produced more (and smaller) products, media channels and constituency groups. It may take you longer to get to your distributed customer base than it used to. Build this into your business plan and budget. The realities of how fast or slow prospects make their way through the marketing funnel has changed.
Lastly, organize small. Smallness, for many of the reasons outlined above, is an advantage. That said, you need not be a small company to act like one. Instinctively many executives know this. ‘Start ups’ are often romanticized as being the most innovative, fastest moving and exciting companies. Imagine though the energy of a startup with the resources of an established enterprise. This is the magic of Google which has been able to demonstrate excellence in disparate markets like search, advertising, mobile devices and cloud collaboration tools. To do this the executive leaders of Google teach the company a governing mission and vision (among many things they do well). They then empower small work units capable of being nimble and innovative to realize that mission in the way that is right for the dynamics of the marketplace that particular unit is competing in.
As an analogy this idea might be thought of as like networked computers. Every computer on a network can run its own programs and do its own job. Design machines can render designs, data processors can crunch data, file servers can serve files. What these different machines doing different tasks all have in common is a lexicon through which to interoperate. For computers this is code. For companies it is a clear mission and vision. In both cases this lexicon serves to make sure all the small tasks the nodes do contribute to the larger goals without slowing down any of the other nodes in the process.
Organizing a company this way, any company, is one means of making sure that as your business grows it continues to reap the benefits of acting small.