Change has to start somewhere. Sometimes that starting point can be – or has to be – big and dramatic, but probably more often it’s small and tentative. We may know where we want to get to, we may know the direction in which to start off, but there cannot be a second step until after there has been a first.
When it works, the first small steps can be a powerful symbol of the intended greater change. But when the necessary change is large and the initial steps are small – particularly in relation to the capacity of those making the steps – the effect can be more gesture than symbol. As in so much else, it is the perception of the observer, not the intention of the actor, which determines which is which.
And so we learn that civil servants will no longer be drinking bottled water at meetings.
Whether that should count as gesture or symbol is not a question which has a right answer. But anybody who wants to manage change should pause to reflect on which it is – and why.