Dream' Testing

Controversy aside, ending the “Dreamers” immigrant program is akin to the “small-step” strategy managers often use.

It might not seem like a small move—not when the lives of more than 800,000 people are thrown into limbo. But numbers and headlines aside, the White House’s decision on young immigrants is a classic “small-step” move in change management.  

In a much-anticipated decision, President Donald Trump announced the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, asking Congress to instead develop a plan for illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. Though full of controversy and leaving the status of many so-called "Dreamer" immigrants uncertain, the move, in reality, avoids taking on the much larger issue of immigration reform.

The pursuit of small steps goes back to the change management days of the 1980s and 1990s, when many organizations used an incremental approach to prepare people and processes for change. “By testing the waters, leaders can test out their theories of what should happen and assess the organization’s ability to absorb change,” says Doug Charles, Korn Ferry’s president of the Americas. Indeed, the pursuit of small steps over big overhauls is played out in organizations every day. For example, a leader may recognize the need to overhaul his or her firm’s approach to compensation but initially only adds options to the employee retirement plan.

Small steps can certainly certainly add up, experts say. Chipping away at issues can build momentum, create positive new work routines, and motivate stakeholders. Plus, leaders can use how they got a small problem fixed as a blueprint to resolve bigger problems.

But a small win isn’t the same as a major victory. Leaders cannot settle for only incremental progress and stop pushing for the bigger scope of change. Unfortunately, that’s what happens more often than organizations want to admit, Charles says. “The problem is when leaders stop at the first win and don’t keep pushing forward. Then they’re left with a new and lesser definition of success,” he says.

People inside the organization know it, too. They watch as the leader loses focus on one initiative and then jumps to pursue the next “shiny new object” in a different part of the organization. The solution? “Declare the small victories, one milestone after another,” Charles says. “But keep going. Once one is achieved, move on to the next. It’s got to be part of a much larger program.”