“Incrementalism is how we slide into participation by imperceptible degrees so that there is never the sense of a frontier being crossed.”
“Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.”
Well. Incrementalism is a virus. And once you catch it is a sonuvabitch to cure.
I, personally, believe the entire business world, including new business incubators, has this virus. Incrementalism has seeped its way not only into mainstream business but also mainstream ‘innovation’ pipelines.
Yeah. Innovations too.
I dare any of you to walk the halls of your local business incubation center and find a real, “break the etch-a-sketch” idea in there. If you are lucky, you will find one. The majority of innovation ideas these days, incubators as well as established companies, is all about incrementally leveraging from something existing.
Sure. They may claim its “unique” and “a whole new way of doing things”, but the majority of the time, lets say 98% of the time, it is a derivative of something that exists. That is how far the incrementalism virus has reached into the business world.
But this post today isn’t about innovation. This is about how incrementalism just makes us sad. It makes us sad because if you embrace incrementalism that means you have given up on, well, something that is not incremental. You have given up on being able to do something big and risky and game changing. And, worst, you’ve given up on making any substantial decisions <because incrementalism is simply an excuse for not making a clear cut decision>.
You may not believe you have given it up because we, in the business world, actually cleverly use incrementalism to convince ourselves we are actually achieving big changes.
We do the dance of ‘small steps to achieve big change’ which is kind of some odd waltz in which we make the same moves over and over again and point to change as “we improved how we dance” <but we are still in the same place dancing with the same person dancing to the same music>.
To be clear.
Even I, someone who loves change and “shaking the etch-a-sketch” in business, have been sucked into the black hole of incrementalism.
We do an incredibly good job of convincing ourselves that big change is hard, shit, that any change is hard and almost impossible to do because ‘it is difficult to do’ (note: which is mostly a bullshit thought). Given that, we do an incredibly good job of convincing ourselves that the only way to effectively successfully implement change is through smaller thoughtful steps. All leading to … we do an incredibly good job of convincing ourselves of all that, in fact, so much so that’s all we do.
Big change is possible. You just need to be smart, thoughtful and choose the ‘big’ wisely and with open eyes. But nowadays we view ‘big’ as some place we need to work our way towards and not just something we do. Unfortunately, as soon as we step onto the incrementalism slippery slope it, more often than not, causes everyone to slide, unintentionally, into unchanging behavior <or microscopic change increments>. This means everyone does small thing after small thing which make everyone feel like they are changing and that shit is changing … uhm … all the while the world itself is changing faster.
This means in our incrementalism we are moving forward and, yet, falling behind. It’s like walking on a moving sidewalk in the wrong direction.
Maybe the worst part?
We do not even see the backwards effect of our supposed forward movement. This happens mostly because most of us suck at not only changing, but perceiving change. We easily lose sight of any change as we focus on the incremental activity we have wholly embraced as ‘progress’ <because we say in our minds: “big change is impossible and this is the way to do it!”>.
The other very real danger of incrementalism is that while you have your head down focused on the incremental task at hand not only may the rest of the world be moving faster than you – it may even turn. So you will keep plugging away plodding down your incrementalism path and all the while the rest of the world is now trundling away in a completely different direction.
By the way. In business this is bad.
I will absolutely admit that most of the business world absolutely recognizes the importance of seeking to continuously reinvent and innovation, yet, sadly mostly we are actually just going through the motions. The motions may look incredibly sensible but they really aren’t achieving any change of any significance.
the term Incrementalism is also used as a synonym for Gradualism. Incrementalism is a method of working by adding to a project using many small incremental changes instead of a few (extensively planned) large jumps.
Logical incrementalism implies that the steps in the process are sensible.
I fully admit that convincing people that change is not hard <and overcoming ‘it pays to be sensible’> is hard. And I fully admit that the “big version” of this is even harder AND I admit that any non-incremental change is even more risky <which makes overcoming “it pays to be sensible” even harder>.
But that isn’t my point.
My point is that it seems like we have convinced ourselves in the business world that change is ALWAYS best achieved gradually and incrementally. We should always find the easy small steps and do them.
So what <you may be asking>?
This means we begin measuring the success of the business not by any real change, but rather defining our usefulness and worthiness by measuring it in increments versus the past. Incrementalism more often than not doesn’t get measured by how much closer to the ‘big change’ you are but rather by how far you have gone from what you were.
That is nuts. And while it is nuts that is almost exactly how over 90% of business conduct business <and their change>. Worse? This incremental behavior decision making actually bleeds into incremental decision making in general. Everyone starts believing that a bold decision just isnt worth it when you know everyone feels comfortable with an incremental decision.
While I always advocate timely good big change, I certainly would advocate embracing incrementalism on occasion. Business change is, and as always been, about choice. You look around and choose where incrementalism may be most effective and where ‘big change’ is actually needed. In other words, for doing smart change you do both within your business.
** note: this is exactly the same for strategy – deterministic & emergent. Emergent is simply another word for ‘unplanned for opportunity’ or opportunistic and typically is an opportunity for a non-incremental result.
I can do both at the same time. This has two benefits:
- Organization: all businesses need to be reinvented in some way. I cannot remember one business I have seen or been involved in that hadn’t established some routine that didn’t need to be changed significantly. Incrementalism steadies the organization by not destroying something, but rather fine tuning it. Conversely when you can tie big change to the organization situationally it energizes the organization that it is being smart <to not change everything>, but bold <in that it is willing to make selective smart big changes>. Showing both is the best of both worlds.
- The employee/individual: incrementalism is a virus almost like mononucleosis. It encourages employees to almost sleepwalk through the day. When you inject big change and encourage everyone to believe it can be done and develop a plan to show it can be done and activate people to start getting it done, individual employees are reminded that there IS something more than either the status quo or ‘incremental and gradual change’ <which they were struggling to discern from the everyday grind anyway>.
My concern is that our love of incrementalism is killing meaningful change. Its killing meaningful decisions. Its killing believing meaningful (bigger) things can actually happen.
I don’t want to kill incrementalism, but I certainly want to breathe new life into “big” and meaningful.
Just know this about incrementalism: the problem is that incrementalism is seductively sleepy. It’s the Prozac of business strategy. All I can really suggest is that every business should stop taking Prozac on occasion and watch how the pulse of the company picks up. They may find that Life off of Prozac just isn’t that bad. More importantly, they may find they can shrug off the sadness of incrementalism and have a happier organization. And that is a good thing in business.