Small Things

I’m convinced that we’re most likely to make a positive difference—to contribute to meaningful development and lasting change—if we pay close attention to small things over the long haul. Real differences emerge when we consistently tend to details without losing sight of the larger vision of which they are a part.

In his fine book, A Way of Ignorance, Wendell Berry said: “I think the great problems call for many small solutions” (p. 65). Sociologist James Q. Wilson said:
If we decide the little things—like graffiti on all subways or buses or un-repaired chinks out of sidewalks or a bit of litter here and there—do not really matter and we let them slide, it makes it easier for the big things—brazen assaults on person in broad daylight—to emerge and take hold. Why? Because letting the little things go, ignoring the beginnings of deterioration an decrepitude is a sign that we no longer care about this place—we do not mind if people start to trash it. This has an insidious effect on our hearts and minds.
Small things matter. Even though it isn’t strictly logical for us to do this kind of thing, we often draw sweeping conclusions based on our impressions of seemingly small things. As management guru Tom Peters once commented, if we see coffee stains on an airplane’s flip down tray, we’re likely to think the airline does shoddy engine maintenance, too. Poor grammar means sloppy thinking. Untucked football jerseys mean undisciplined athletes. Trash in the yard means trashy people in the house. A run down church building means a careless, declining congregation.

None of these impressions is strictly logical. It’s possible to have great airline mechanics and a poor janitorial service. It’s possible to have brilliant ideas and massacre the king’s English. Trash in the yard might mean that someone inside is injured or ill. Even though it isn’t logical to make those kinds of connections, we do it all the time. We sense that a leader or an organization which is really on the ball will be on top of even the smallest details.

Many of our most pleasant experiences with leaders, companies, and organizations can be traced back to the little things. A hotel that turns down the sheets, fluffs the pillow and leaves a chocolate; the gas station that puts handi-wipes beside the gas pumps; free samples at Sams; the greeter at Wal-Mart.

From the Cajun country in southern Louisiana, we’ve gotten a delightful word for going the extra mile and doing the unexpected. The word is lagniappe. It comes from words in Louisiana French and American Spanish which mean, essentially, “the gift” and “to give more.” It describes a little bonus that a friendly shopkeeper might add to a purchase. By extension, it may mean “an extra or unexpected gift or benefit.” You’ve heard the old saying: “Give 17 ounces to the pound, 37 inches to the yard and thirteen pieces to the dozen and people will beat a path to your door.” Do the extra, unexpected things that will set you or your organization apart.

Small things. Return phone calls. Answer emails. Say “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry.” Celebrate good things. RSVP. Don’t leave things “almost done”; finish them. Communicate clearly. Honor deadlines. Imagine what it’s like to be the other person. Clean up after yourself. Pick up trash. Turn off lights when not in use. Recycle. Shine your shoes. Send flowers. Write a note. Read to a child. Care for a neighbor. Help a stranger.

In Every War Has Two Losers, poet William Stafford says, “To hold the voice down and the eyes up when facing someone who antagonizes you is a slight weight—once. But in a lifetime it adds up to tons” (p. 27). Small and right things, over time, add up.

In the year ahead, I want to pay closer attention to the details; I want to pay more attention to the nuances, subtleties, and quiet opportunities which offer me the chance to make a positive difference.