Making New Zealand Too Small To Fail

By Robert Hickson 25/10/2011

Rather than thinking that we can’t be prosperous (economically and otherwise) because we are small and isolated, we should consider how we can make New Zealand ‘Too Small To Fail’ during turbulent times.

Fail (with a capital F) is when our economic, social and environmental performance not only decline but remain where they are now. Because, as Sir Paul Callaghan has pointed out, we need to be a country where talented people want to live.

Too small to fail isn’t about being risk averse and irrelevant. It is about capitalising on the advantages of our smallness to not only get us through turbulent times but to prosper. What are advantages in being small? Agility, cooperation, openness, and ingenuity are common attributes.

During times of uncertainty and change experimentation, rather than conservatism, is often a better strategy. Old solutions are unlikely to work for the new environment. So as a country we have to be willing to experiment and take calculated risks. This involves being prepared to fail (with a small ‘f’). Being small lends itself to a greater capacity (and necessity) to learn from both successes and failures and to adapt quickly to those.

You may grumble that we have experimented before with tragic results –  Think Big, Rogernomics, and the 2007 Rugby World Cup All Blacks reconditiong programme. But you can also experiment by making small bets that don’t risk as much.

New Zealand’s approach in recent times to finding solutions has been to go for high profile events such as the Knowledge Wave and the Jobs Summit. These haven’t resulted in much, perhaps because they focused on quick politically palatable actions rather than long term strategy.

The Knowledge Wave and Jobs Summit do, however, demonstrate that we can get most of the countries movers, shakers and leading thinkers in the same place at the same time. Being small we can do this well.

Despite being small we still like to create silos, both inside government and across the private sector. In a changing world problems and opportunities aren’t neatly packaged. Business models are changing. In the pharmaceutical sector there is a realisation that companies have to move from a ‘profit alone’ mentality to a collaborative ‘profit together’ approach. The same will hold for the energy and other sectors as new technologies, processes, fiscal and social requirements emerge.

Our science system has recently been encouraged to become more collaborative. New Zealand firms also need to consider where collaborations can improve their business.

Being small also tends toward having fairly flat managerial and political structures — both in government and firms. So information, ideas and changes can theoretically move quite quickly; if the right incentives and processes are in place. Adaptability is likely to be a critical success factor in the future, and this is where small can be advantageous.

For most people it is often the small or local things that are of most importance — the things our local council and school boards do. So part of becoming ‘Too small to fail’ is paying greater attention to the little things and local issues, voting and demanding better performance and accountability from those elected.

Rory Sutherland is better at illustrating this than I am.


Small is also about stopping problems becoming too big to handle. This requires being well informed of challenges and opportunities, as well as knowing the underlying issues and being prepared to act. Sweating the “small” stuff can be important.

As the leadership expert John Kotter has described, good administration and management is fine for an army in peacetime, but during a battle leadership not management is what matters. The same principle applies to getting New Zealand through turbulent times. And it is not just leadership from the top. We are small so everyone has to act.

If most of the country can get behind making an international sporting event a success, what is required  to get them involved in something that’s really important?

What other attributes of smallness do you think New Zealand can prosper from?

0 Responses to “Making New Zealand Too Small To Fail”

  • Thanks Robert. A thought provoking piece with useful and substantiating links. Keep writing.

  • Awesome, and I completely agree! Sadly, though, that seems to be the major question: other than rugby, what galvanises NZ?

  • We are terribly ambivalent about any difference between ‘tall poppies’ and ‘leadership’. We expect ‘those up there’ to sort things out for us, we moan but do nothing when they don’t, and we don’t take them to task early enough when they mess up. And the majority avoid getting involved in helping to make good decisions. The World Cup just required them to provide loud support, it didn’t involve any decisions for the audiences.

    • Good points Sue. Although, with the World Cup a lot of the centres hosting teams did put a lot of effort into making the teams feel welcome (events, and inviting palyers or supporters to dinner) so it wasn’t that passive. But true, most people can be good hosts for a short while and it doesn’t take much effort.

      What is encouraging is initiatives like Transition Towns – – where some local communities are taking action to help create more sustainable communities.

  • Excellent, thoughtful post accompanied by an excellent clip. Very thought provoking