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The Foundations of Exponential Impact

Category:Creation Spaces,Movements,Passion,Workgroups

As we enter the first few weeks of what I’ve called the Launch Decade, it’s a good time to explore what we’ll need to launch ourselves into exponentially expanding opportunity for everyone. There’s a lot that will need to come together, but let me focus here on one of the key building blocks – small groups. (I love the paradox: to achieve very large impact, we need small groups.)

I’ve become more and more focused on the importance of small groups to achieving accelerating impact. I’ve explored this in a business context, with our work on business practice redesign for workgroups. I’ve explored this in the context of movements, with the realization that all successful movements are organized into small cells. I’ve also explored this in a broader learning context, with the perspective that creation spaces built around small groups are key to accelerating learning in arenas as diverse as extreme sports and online video games.

To be clear, I’m not talking about all small groups. Most small groups are trapped in narrow context and needs. But certain small groups show the ability to help participants have growing impact and, in the process, achieve far more of their potential as individuals and as a group.

As I’ve spent time exploring these small groups that achieve accelerating impact, I’ve become convinced that they are so important because they help us to address our emotional needs (our heartset) and ultimately to connect with others at a much deeper level (our spiritset) that can cultivate shared passion (specifically, the passion of the explorer). It’s about building deep and enduring (but also evolving) human connection. They do this by achieving a rich balance across dimensions that are often viewed as conflicting.

Balance in time

Regardless of context, the small groups that can set in motion exponential impact do so by focusing on both the long-term and the short-term at the same time. These small groups are constantly looking ahead and framing inspiring opportunities and outcomes that will take a long time to achieve. This inspires participants to act, but it also clearly communicates that the impact of that action will need to expand rapidly if the long-term opportunity and outcome is ever to be achieved. The bar for impact is very high.

That’s the long-term. At the same time, these small groups are relentlessly focused on action they can and need to take in the short-term to yield tangible impact quickly and help to accelerate the learning process. There’s a strong bias for action now, but action that is framed in the context of the longer-term opportunity and outcome.

The small group participants are constantly moving back and forth between a focus on the long-term opportunity and outcomes and committing to achieving impact in the short-term. They are clear that one without the other is useless.

This balance helps to shape the emotions of the participants. By framing an inspiring long-term opportunity, the small group can help its participants to overcome any fear they might have and cultivate excitement and the courage to take action. At the same time, by focusing on high impact moves in the short-term, these small groups can help overcome the skepticism that might naturally arise about a long-term opportunity. They can show tangible impact in the short-term to build confidence that the much bigger, longer-term opportunity is achievable.

Balance in relationships

The small workgroups that achieve accelerating impact are able to establish a balance between challenging and support.

Participants in these small workgroups are constantly challenging each other and holding each other accountable. In my work on productive friction, I have tended to focus on the willingness, in fact eagerness, to challenge others regarding ideas on how to achieve more impact in the short-term. Participants challenge each other out of respect, because they are all driven by a shared commitment to a longer-term opportunity and outcome and a shared desire to accelerate impact. Diversity within the workgroup helps to ensure that the challenging yields more creative approaches to achieving impact.

But this challenging doesn’t just occur in the realm of ideas. Participants in these workgroups hold each other accountable for action and results. Their commitment is to action and impact. If they sense that one or more of the participants are slacking off or holding back, they are challenging those participants to become more active.

At the same time, participants in these small workgroups are actively supporting each other. If they see one of their members faltering, they are quick to offer support. If someone starts to feel frustrated or afraid because some of their actions ran into unexpected obstacles or failed to achieve the desired impact, other members of the group are quick to provide encouragement and make it clear that they can work together to find ways to achieve the desired impact.

This balance of challenging and support helps to strengthen the excitement about the opportunity to accelerate impact while overcoming fear and frustration that inevitably occurs when specific actions fail to achieve the impact that was expected. More fundamentally, it emphasizes to all the participants that we are in this together, which strengthens the emotions required to pursue sustained action, despite the inevitable obstacles and roadblocks encountered along the way.

Balance in movement

The small workgroups that achieve accelerating impact maintain a careful balance between action and reflection.

These groups have a strong bias for action. If participants sit around too long talking to each other, they become visibly restless. They are driven to achieve impact and they have a strong bias for action. They know that the most valuable form of learning occurs through action.

On the other hand, they also know that learning through action requires reflection. They need to take the time to step back and reflect on the impact that has been achieved, so that they can learn what would be required to achieve even more impact. They are also reflecting while they are taking action, alert to the environment and observing where and how impact is being achieved. Reflection will also help the participants to clarify the nature of the longer-term opportunity they are striving to address together.

Action and reflection together are necessary to accelerate impact and these workgroups are constantly moving between the two. Action provides the fuel for deeper reflection and reflection provides the fuel for action with higher impact.

Once again, this balance helps to cultivate more positive emotions. Action alone can be exhausting and often lead to burn-out. Reflection alone can lead to passivity and fear because there are so many options and so many ways that things could go wrong. Action and reflection together strengthen the courage to move forward and the excitement about the opportunity to increase impact.

Balance for what?

There’s more. Achieving balance across these three dimensions has other benefits as well.

Cultivate trust. First, these three dimensions of balance are powerful in cultivating deep trust among participants. I’ve written about trust a lot, including a blog post on the “trust paradox” almost a decade ago. In that post, I made the case that the foundations for trust are rapidly evolving. In more stable times, trust was built around demonstrated expertise and skills. In more rapidly changing times, trust increasingly depends on an assessment of whether someone has what it takes to embrace uncertainty and work together to find a way to continue to deliver value even when the skills of the past are called into question. It’s about will versus skill.

These three dimensions of balance can be very helpful in demonstrating the will to work together to find a way to deliver more and more impact in a time of rapid change and in the face of significant obstacles and challenges. By building deeper trust, participants create an environment where they are comfortable expressing vulnerability and asking for help. This sets in motion a virtuous cycle, because the more willing participants are to ask for help, the more help they are likely to receive and the more deeply they will trust each other.

Foster personal growth. Balance across these three dimensions also helps to foster personal growth as well as broader impact beyond the small group. The more willing we are to ask for help, the more progress we are likely to make in terms of addressing the obstacles and roadblocks that exist within all of us and that stand in the way of achieving more of our potential.

Cultivate passion. But that’s not all. These three dimensions of balance are also powerful in cultivating passion – a very specific form of passion that I call the “passion of the explorer,” that I’ve written about a lot, including here and here.

The passion of the explorer starts with a long-term commitment to achieving increasing impact in a domain. The more these workgroups can frame an inspiring long-term opportunity and focus participants on action that can deliver increasing impact, the more likely that this long-term commitment can be drawn out.

The passion of the explorer also includes a questing disposition – seeking out challenges that will help someone to achieve more impact in the domain they have chosen. And, finally, the passion of the explorer includes a connecting disposition – people with this form of passion are constantly seeking to connect with others to help them to get to better and better outcomes in addressing the challenges they are confronting. I will leave it to you to figure out how the three dimensions of balance I discussed above can help to cultivate these dispositions.

Is that all there is?

So, there’s a danger that those reading this post may conclude that it’s all about small groups. That’s all we need to drive exponential change.

Not at all. My view is that these small groups are a necessary foundation for driving exponential change. They are necessary, but not sufficient. As I’ve written elsewhere, achieving the full potential of these small groups requires them to come together in creation spaces or movements, building networks that can help these small groups to connect more effectively with each other at larger and larger scale.

Bottom line

Small workgroups are the necessary foundation for driving exponential impact. But they can only provide that foundation if they strike the right balance to address the heartset and spiritset that are essential for all of us to develop the motivation to drive expanding impact. If we’re going to motivate ourselves to come together, overcome our fear and doubts and unleash our hope and excitement, these small workgroups are a necessary environment for coming together, building the deep trust and cultivating the passion to overcome all obstacles. The sky’s the limit. Get ready to launch in this new decade.



January 24, 2020at 2:45 pm

The international development sector has been using these insights with great effect for a long time. Health and poverty outcomes are being significantly impacted through the use of what we used to call “self help” groups within a village or town context. I find it harder to replicate that success in the US because of cultural factors and generally how we have structured our society. Your insights here will prove useful in my community work.

Katherine Warman Kern

January 23, 2020at 1:01 pm

We made COMRADITY because we observe a need for an oasis to open minds to creative collaboration in business. The most amazing human accomplishments happen when people come together. The more diverse their expertise and perspectives, the more likely they may create something bigger because it will benefit multiple stakeholders.

The challenge we face is fear – more than we’ve ever witnessed in our careers. It keeps people isolated from one another. It closes minds. It feeds cynicism and doubt in oneself and each other. People aren’t imagining how they could make someone’s idea better, they are tearing others’ ideas apart.

When the ice breaks, you can feel the load lighten and the energy increase. But to be persistent, it takes more than a break from the day to day. This is about changing in-grained behavior.

That’s why we think you are on to something when you talk about balance. In addition to balancing action and reflection, I’d add balancing risk with reward to motivate courage to be persistently open-minded.

Dr. Willy A. Sussland

January 23, 2020at 10:48 am

Small can be smart and swift. Agile Management works with small teams but it works well only if all these small teams interact frequently and effectively.
Please provide a link to your “On the edge of the next decade”, I cannot download it from this paper.
I used to follow you when you were associated with a global auditor. I would be happy to be included in the list of your newsletter. Kind regards, Willy

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My new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, will be published by McGraw Hill on May 25. It starts with the observation that fear is becoming the dominant emotion for people around the world. While understandable, fear is also very limiting.

The book explores a variety of approaches we can pursue to cultivate emotions of hope and excitement that will help us to move forward despite fear and achieve more of our potential. It's received some great endorsements! You can pre-order the book at Amazon.

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