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Crab claw: we need both big and small solutions

Creating systemic change

Effective system change is complex and takes time. In the meantime, we need simple and quick changes to help people. I’ve taken to calling this the crab claw (one big solution, one small solution) because I like silly names and simple visuals. We need both the big crab claw and the small crab claw.

The big crab claw

Most systems have complex, large scale, long term, inputs and causes. I like the iceberg model of system thinking: events are on top of patterns of behaviour are on top of system structures are on top of mental models. The lower down in the iceberg we go, the more leverage we have.

Complex, large scale, long term solutions will have the most effect. But what do we do in the meantime? What about the people the system is affecting right now?

The small crab claw

It’s clear that we need complex, large scale, long-term to make systemic changes. That’s treating the root cause of the problems. To treat the symptoms while we wait for the system to change, we need simple, small scale, short-term changes.

These solutions will be quick to implement and tangible. They’re also a good way to keep the pressure on the system. A good way of thinking about this: be impatient for action but patient for outcomes.

MVP it

One way to approach the big claw is to MVP it. That is: make the complex, large scale, long-term, solution in an iterative manner. This lets us take small risks and do small experiments. We can make small mistakes and fix them more easily. We’ll learn more from trial and error than from sitting and thinking.

I like the approach of thinking in bets. Being clear that we’re making a guess, and putting a rough measure on how confident we are about success.

Small claw

Small changes can make a big difference in behaviour, if done well. Even when they don’t, they’re still worthwhile for “treating the symptoms”.

Small steps are:

  • easier and more comfortable to do;
  • help manage anxiety about the big steps;
  • can make quick changes.

Some markers for good actions

Good actions:

  • make things better by subtraction rather than addition;
  • is something that people enjoy doing;
  • have built-in redundancies;
  • build rather than attack;
  • focus on what connects people rather than what divides people;
  • are simple and practical;
  • focus on strategies rather than issues.


Some of the resources that I’m thinking about.