“One Fell Swoop” vs “One Step at a Time”

“What, all my pretty chickens and their dam. At one fell swoop?” —Macduff in Macbeth lamenting over the murder of his family and servants.

Many of us want to have our problems dealt with in “one fell swoop” conveniently forgetting that “fell” means “cruel and terrible.” But we humans want what we want and that’s to imagine a revolutionary change of sudden transformation that sweeps away all our troubles. 

But over our years of working on change programs with organizations large and small we’ve learned that it’s this very longing for transformation that, ironically, is often what keeps us from experiencing the change we are after. 

I’ve also experienced this in my quest for personal growth. Throughout my life I’ve wished for a transformative revolution. This has led me on spiritual quests to temples and dojos in Asia, workshops in SF, coaches for NLP, therapists for CBT and EMDR, biohacking and systems of personal transformation. 

Each path has, in one way or another, promised transformation and each has been a step, in one way or another, on the path to the life I have now. But each has also been just that — a step. 

I see the same dynamic play out in the leaders and the teams I work with. They approach each new process or tool or reorg looking for the killer app that will make everything better. But the one-fell-swoop approach rarely if ever works. This is because we are dealing with incredibly complex situations and it’s impossible to know all the things up front you need to know. 

A better approach is one-step-at-a-time, in other words continuous improvement. You can experiment with systems and processes and tools all you want of course — we even encourage this. But this experimentation must be grounded in a mindset that focuses on continuous improvement, not one-and-done change. 

If you commit to continuous personal and organizational reflection, experimentation and small changes you’ll find that over time you will experience the transformation you seek. It just won’t be in the form you imagine. 

But if you approach new systems as if they are saviors you’ll be disappointed every time. 

It may be tempting to tear things down and rebuild — it can be very attractive and even seem fun. But it won’t get you where you want to go. 

Instead focus on building competence and self knowledge one step at a time. Evolution after all is the most powerful force of change on the planet.

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