The Power of Small: Why Nano Inputs Lead to Macro Outputs and What That Means for You and Your Organization

Author: Bryan Ritchie

The movie the Big Short opens with what is claimed to be a quote from Mark Twain (which it isn’t): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so!” It is at the crossroads of these kinds of paradoxes that the greatest opportunity for learning resides. I’d like to explore one of these things that everyone knows for sure, but that just might not be so. This is the idea that great accomplishments come from big and impressive efforts.

It’s easy to think of the big accomplishments that impress us. Edmund Hillary climbing Mount Everest. The record-setting trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh. Matthew Webb’s swim across the English Channel. All of these are tremendous accomplishments. But perhaps against our natural impressions, these accomplishments were not the result of one big herculean effort, but rather the result of many small efforts. In fact, in almost every case, great outcomes are the result of just one more incremental input. In a very important way, great accomplishments occur naturally, almost predictably, from a series of previous small inputs.

One of the great predictors in our lives is something called “path dependence.” Path dependence means that out next step depends not only on where we now stand, but the prior path we’ve been on. A common and succinct definition of path dependence is that “one damn thing follows another.” Path dependence is pervasive, persistent, and either pernicious or productive depending on whether it’s supporting a vicious or virtuous cycle. As Newton noted, trains tend to keep moving when they’re moving. World War II was caused mostly by WW I. Want to know whether kids will go to college? Check to see if their parents did. Want to know if countries will develop technically? Check out their resource base. At the end of the day, and to a large degree, we’re a product of our history.

This doesn’t mean that change is impossible. Only that it’s hard. We’re like boats in a fast moving stream. Even if we don’t row at all, we’re still moving. And many times change requires that we row upstream. This is why it’s so important that we put great energy behind a few things we really want to accomplish. But even more important, it’s why we need to focus on inputs rather than outputs. Creating a new path requires focus, energy, and discipline to do the small things.

Think of a flywheel. Flywheels take tremendous energy to get past the initial inertia when it’s at rest. But once it’s started it continues with only a little additional energy. Most goals require a similar consistent effort of small inputs to get the flywheel turning. Many small steps build momentum. They also change the very path in ways that are self-reinforcing. Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge explain how very small changes create space for larger change to follow. For example, when Mother Teresa was asked how she accomplished her great work in life, she said “I met everyone with a smile.”

Consider some additional examples. Amy Cuddy found that simply “carrying yourself in a powerful way directs your feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and body to feel powerful and be present (and even perform better)….” Trim tabs on giant rudders for ocean liners create cavitation space allowing the rudder to turn. Researchers are finding that simply choosing to identify anxious feelings as excitement rather than anxiety will change outcomes. Small amounts of money invested over time will harness the power of compound interest to result in impressive sums. Children, businesses, and charities all take numerous small inputs which time and attention transform into grand outcomes.

Notice the importance of time and attention. The real key to great success, however you define it, is to consistently apply small inputs over time. Whether you want to lose weight, make money, or help people, the recipe is the same. The real insight is that the great result comes naturally, almost predictably, as one more incremental small step pushes the outcome “over the top.”

It is true we are masters of our outcomes. But outcomes are path dependent and “sticky.” What we do matters intensely, but not immediately. Big bursts of gigantic inputs, not sustained over time, will often lead to very little if anything. Did you know that 70% of lottery winners go broke within a few years?! It is the small, consistently applied inputs that will over time generate tremendous outcomes. The learning that comes from this insight is that while it is important to identify the outcomes you desire, (the goals and objectives you or your organization is striving for), remember that it is perhaps more important to identify the small, key performance activities in order to determine the path your organization takes to realize its mission and vision.

Bryan Ritchie and James Western are co-founders of GrowthSPORT, a successful consulting company whose mission is to improve SCORES (Stimulate Culture, Optimize Results and Engage Staff) for Teams, Divisions, Departments and Organizations through the SPORT model (Strategic Alignment, Personnel Performance, Operational Execution, Results Accountability and Team Strength), which are the Five Core Elements of Success.

GrowthSPORT provides resources, tools and experienced consultants to effectively implement the SPORT performance model from companies ranging from Startups to Fortune 500 companies.

Feel free to reach out to GrowthSPORT at (801) 676-2500 or at


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