How do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time, goes the old saying.

Research shows you turn trainees into high performers the same way – one bite at a time. Experimental psychologist Karl Weick, in oft-cited work, described how organizations broke down massive problems by focusing on small victories.

Training application: Trainers can break down all the behaviors successful people do into individual skills. By mastering small obstacles, eventually they’re eating the whole elephant.

But watch out: Small wins are not quite as straightforward as they might seem at first glance.

“Small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal,” explained Weick in his research. “More common[ly] … small wins are scattered and cohere only in the sense that they move in the same general direction or all move away from some deplorable condition.”

Help with obstacles
For example, coaches can throw curveballs to a hitter during practice. But when the pitcher chooses the pitch – that’s a different story. Not only must the hitter master the mechanics– knowing when and which way the ball will break – but also the psychology of it – when the pitcher is likely to use it.

So as a trainer, you’d have to break down the training even further – teaching how to analyze pitch counts (e.g., when are you most likely to face an offspeed pitch) and recognizing “tells” the pitcher gives that curveball is coming (e.g., not hiding his grip during windup).

The small wins add up when the batter does better at recognizing pitch counts, better at recognizing tells, and altering his swing and timing to adapt to the curveball. Each of these small wins may happen in a different order, and progress may be fitful, non-sequential, and never perfect. But that’s how batters learn to hit them.

Here’s how to apply this research:

1. Identify one obstacle to be overcome in a real-life situation. For example, in sales, turning gatekeepers into allies.

2. Identify the individual skills needed to overcome it. For example, asking questions to understand the gatekeeper’s role (e.g., giving the gatekeeper a good reason for passing your call on), and understanding the benefit he or she can use to pass on that call.

3. Recognize the “small wins” when they happen. An after-the-call debriefing should include whether the salesperson asked the gatekeeper the right questions and understood contextual clues – not simply whether the seller did in fact get to the decision maker.

4. Remember ‘“small wins” move the trainee in the right direction (and away from the wrong one). Focus trainees on all the skills needed, and offer praise whenever success is found in any needed skill.

5. Don’t confuse luck with a small victory. Beginners get lucky sometimes. Praise the success, but also debrief to make sure the skills were used.

Weick, Karl, Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems, American Psychologist, January 1984, pp. 40-49.
McCarver, Tim. Baseball for Brain Surgeons, 1999: Villard Publishing.

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