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.
water jug and glass
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.


  1. Well, I entirely agree with the change. I’ve become uncomfortable with bottled water in recent months (the Dec 07 Decanter review was the final straw).
    But as to how this will be viewed by those on the receiving end I cant say. I tend to be such an early adopter that people have no difficulty treat my principles with dismissive indulgence.

  2. I agree with William – particularly with a change such as this one, which may not be small steps, preceding a big change, but may be lots and lots and lots of those small steps, gathering pace. I don’t think it’s symbolic. I think it helps take everyone inexorably towards a tipping point where wasting resources, in such a flagrant manner, becomes socially unacceptable and simply leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

  3. I don’t think the question of whether banning bottled water is or is not a good thing is the same as the question of whether the act of banning it is a symbol or a gesture. Whether it is a good thing to do or not is a question about bottled water, environmental impact and resource consumption. Whether banning water is a symbol or a gesture is a question about the significance of the change both in relation to the power to change things enjoyed by the person making the change and in relation to the scale of possible or necessary changes.
    And surely in this context, being symbolic is good not bad. Banning civil servants from drinking bottled water at meetings is not in itself going to make any difference whatsoever to the fate of the planet. It is only worth bothering about precisely if it is symbolic of a larger ambition and is one or many small steps towards something, rather than being a destination in its own right.
    But the post wasn’t intended to be really about water at all. The broader question about how to change behaviour and attitudes through the power of symbols and stories still remains.

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