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Finding a Balance Between “Big” and “Small”

I recently finished reading E.F. Schumacher’s classic book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. It’s a collection of essays, published during the 1973 energy crisis, that calls on companies to prioritize social purpose alongside profits — to put community and sustainability front and center, rather than fixating on short-term financial gains.

Schumacher’s writing set the stage for more than four decades of commentary on economics, environmentalism, and corporate social responsibility. For example, in his 2019 Letter to CEOs, Blackrock CEO Larry Fink writes, “companies must demonstrate their commitment to the countries, regions, and communities where they operate” — an echo of Schumacher’s assertion that “An entirely new system of thought is needed, a system based on attention to people, and not primarily attention to goods.” Other prominent corporate leaders, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, have made similar points about the importance of balancing financial goals with commitment to  social and community objectives.

I also see subtle traces of Schumacher’s thought in some unexpected places, such as modern software development practices. According to Small is Beautiful, “we are generally told that gigantic organizations are inescapably necessary; but…there is often a strenuous attempt to attain smallness within bigness.” Was Schumacher writing about Agile Development — an approach based on empowering small, nimble teams to build and ship quickly, even within the structure of a large company — at least two decades before the rise of the Internet?

Most interesting to me is the fact that Schumacher sees a role for both “smallness” and “bigness” in furthering an organization’s performance. Sometimes, he says, we need order and process — and sometimes, we need creative anarchy:

Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to the underlings, obedience, discipline — without these nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates. And yet — without the magnanimity of disorder, the happy abandon, the entrepreneurship venturing into the unknown and incalculable, without the risk and the gamble, the creative imagination rushing in where bureaucratic angels fear to tread — without this, life is a mockery and a disgrace.

Companies of all sizes need order and effective policies. But, companies of all sizes also need to embrace urgency, speed, and a spirit of risk-taking in order to proactively deliver creative solutions that delight customers. “Bigness” has advantages — a bird’s-eye view of the customer journey, greater capacity to take advantage of big data and digital tools, and more resources to support employees and customers alike. “Smallness” has advantages, too — the ability to move quickly, test new ideas, tailor solutions to niche audiences, and forge close personal connections.

Schumacher’s writing reminded me that great companies, and great leaders, embrace both “bigness” and “smallness”. As a result, I’ve been reflecting on the balance of big and small in my own life. Where do I need more discipline and order? Where might I benefit from more action and experimentation? Where are my “bureaucratic angels” serving me well, and where is their fear holding me back?

For example, in my corporate work, I’ve found that “bigness” helps global teams deliver a better customer experience. Many of my teams have used Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to record customer information in a standardized format, and to support a standardized process for enabling the customer journey. When every employee has access to the same up-to-date resources, customers receive consistent and responsive service regardless of where they are or who they happen to speak with on a given day.

Similarly, for our summer Stanford Continuing Studies leadership course, my colleague Tracy Wilk and I leverage the “bigness” of Stanford University to ensure that everything goes smoothly in the planning stages. We utilize Stanford’s standardized processes for marketing the course, registering participants, arranging facilities — and their precise, step-by-step instructions make the logistics easy. However, we leave the standardization behind once the class starts. We want the students’ curiosity to guide our discussions, so we take a “small” approach — open-minded, action-oriented, and experimental — to interviewing guest executives and exploring leadership issues and questions as a group.

How do you balance big and small in your work? In your hobbies and relationships? I’d love to hear what you think.


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