Small wins

Essential seeds for systemic changes

Department of Social Sciences

The future is circular. But how do you initiate a transition to a circular society? And can you steer it into a certain direction? Politicians and policymakers are often impatient, whereas systemic change does not come about overnight. That’s why Katrien Termeer of Wageningen University & Research believes in small wins: small-scale yet profound and meaningful innovations that start transformation or help it move forward.

This research contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities.

“I actually prefer to speak of transformation rather than transition, to indicate that we are talking about a profound and unpredictable systemic change,” says Katrien Termeer, professor and chair of the Public Administration and Policy (PAP) group. Together with colleagues from her group, Termeer developed the small wins approach for transformative change. “Small wins is a concept that has been developed in organisational psychology in the US,” says Termeer. “I have further developed the theory — together with stakeholders from the work field — in order to lead transformations in the direction of sustainability.”

The strength of focusing on small steps is that it prevents us from becoming paralysed by the complexity of an issue

She elaborates: “The strength of focusing on small steps is that it prevents us from becoming paralysed by the complexity of an issue and from getting stuck on endless talking. Many small wins can accumulate into a transformation. In the end, employing a strategy based on small steps turns out to lead to change more quickly than one big leap would.”

Ban on free plastic bags

There are plenty of examples of small wins in the transformation to a circular society. Think of the Vegetarian Butcher (De Vegetarische Slager), who started experimenting with vegetarian ‘meat’ and whose company now has become part of Unilever. Or the ambitious company Kipster: the most environmentally and animal-friendly chicken farm in the world. Another example is De Herenboerderij, which started at just one location with a group of consumers who became the owners of a sustainable and cooperative farm; the Herenboeren [a ‘herenboer’ is an old-fashioned word for a wealthy farmer, ed.] are now a real movement with more than fifteen projects under development.

“But small wins are not always about technical innovations,” Termeer emphasises. “They can also be about new legislation, such as a ban on free plastic bags, or about an innovative business model. Take the legal proceedings that caused the nitrogen crisis; they can also be seen as a small win. The court ruling on the Dutch Programmatic Approach to Nitrogen (the PAS) also marks a profound change.”

The Vegetarian Butcher

From small company to becoming part of Unilever


From local success to the most environmentally friendly chicken farm in the world

De Herenboerderij

From a few people to a big movement with 15 projects coming up

Profound, radical change

PAP’s research into small wins is taking shape through its collaboration with innovators and policymakers in the work field. “Together we’re exploring how we can help small wins to spread, connect and deepen,” says Termeer. “Spreading is about expanding the initiative. After all, you haven’t started a transformation with only one owner, in the case of the Herenboerderij. Connecting is about linking it with other themes. Think, for example, of the establishment of a repair cafe in a school, linking circularity to technical education. Deepening is about fundamentally changing production processes. If an initiative like the repair cafe also leads to devices being made differently, which in turn makes it easier to repair them or re-use their parts, then you really have initiated a profound, radical change.”

Based on these practical examples, the theory of the small wins approach took shape: what are the characteristics of small wins and how do you identify them? How can you stimulate small wins in such a way that they really contribute to transformation?

Close collaborations

PAP, as a group of policy experts, focuses on the government, but also investigates private initiatives and public-private partnerships. “Together with these parties, we are investigating which policy interventions work to further stimulate small wins, and which do not.” According to Katrien Termeer, it is important for governments to work with initiatives that already exist and support them. “Not by pampering them or using perpetual pilots, but by creating policy space and by staying the loop. Make sure that innovation subsidy programmes are easily accessible and not too strict. As a government, make sure you are a sparring partner — for example, by appointing a permanent contact person who also connects parties and thus helps create added value. Ensure that the transformation is also reflected in legislation and, in any case, stop policies that are counterproductive to a circular economy.”

We don't offer an abstract theory, but an actionable perspective that parties can use directly

The fact that the small wins approach has a lot of resonance among policymakers and that Termeer is often asked to participate in committees and expert groups is a good result in Termeer’s view. “It’s not that surprising,” she says. “Because we don’t offer an abstract theory, but rather a concrete and actionable perspective that parties can apply directly. It’s an approach that gives parties energy to move a transformation process forward, partly because of the positive approach and because the approach does not disqualify initiatives and companies.”

Watch the video

Do you want to know more about the small wins approach? Ask our expert:

Katrien Termeer

Professor Public Administration and Policy

Share article