Weak Methods and Small Wins

I found an idea in this piece on Social Entrepreneurs provocative. Let’s accept that entrepreneurs are a class of people who create value in a manner that is both creative and destructive. (An idea usual credited to Schumpeter.) The social entrepreneurs do a similar thing in the sphere of social value. Some people get all fixated on the destructive side of the equation, the way that a successful entrepeneur often seems to destroy the vested interests – i.e. Microsoft (and the desktop PC) displaces Digital Equipment (and the mini-computer).

I found that provocative since recently I was reading a some stuff about small wins which are a design pattern for political activism. The theory of small wins is that a successful social movement gets that way not by kicking the shins of the giant of vested interests but rather by a series of small wins. Each small win has a positive feedback effect on the movements self confidence. It that creates cohesion for the group that both strenthens and enlarges it. Focusing on small wins allows the group to be light on it’s feet – cherry picking successes. The focus on small wins also decreases the chance that the immune system of the vested interests will mount an effective response. First because the wins are often small enough not to trigger the immune system. Secondly because the creative cherry picking makes the movement’s next act hard to predict.

One of the reasons that folks that have been successful in large companies employees often fail to thrive in entreprenural settings is that they are used to having and executing on longterm big plans. In a very small entrepenurial firm the plan, the product, the market, the customer often change once or twice a week. The small firm is actively searching for a series of small wins. That series will then deliver three key things: a team that has confidence it’s ablity to execute, an offering that has adapted to the market, and possibly most importantly a proof that the niche exists where other market players won’d eat you alive.

At first I thought these ideas were already familiar. Long long time ago I learned a species of problem solving techniques, what Simon and Newell called ‘strong methods’, that could be applied to any problem. For example you can always solve a problem by generate-and-test: you generate an solution, test if it works, repeating that until you find a solution. This method is strong in that it works for absolutely any problem. It is, of course, a lousy method because it may take an infinite amount of time and expense to generate enough solutions to find the one you need. At the other end of the spectrum from the strong-methods are the weak-methods which only apply to a limited range of problems: for example that to avoid getting bits of egg shell in your breakfast you should crack the egg on an a flat surface is both a weak but extremely effective method. Evolution is a strong, but lousy, method.

One of the weak methods (well almost) is hill climbing. You start with generate and test and then you modify it slightly by scoring your successes and then when it comes time to generate the next possible solution you try something that seems to head in the same direction as the solutions that got good scores. You try to climb up hill to the peak score; where presumably you’ll find the solution. This obviously won’t solve all problems; your not likely to get to the top of Mt. Everest by just walking up hill from where every are.

Small wins and other tools of entrepeneurship are not just hill climbing. Because they must create a virtious cycle that feeds the strength and enthusiasm of the team, the movement, the organization.  By generate real value with each win, value that addresses the actual goals of the organization, that validates and strengthens the organization – they are social money in the bank. The process inherently search out the places in the problem space where the problem has some give, places where the vested interests are less likely to fight back.

All this tends to suggest that step wise is often a dominate strategy compaired to revolution. Which is curious since entrepeneurship is often cast as a revolutionary act. That’s true, it is revolutionary, but only if you get fixated on the destruction side of the value creation. You rarely revolutionize vested interests by taking them head on, usually you just quietly displace them.

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