If you want to change your world in a small way or the world in a bigger way then being an incrementalist is vital.
An incrementalist achieves progress through small steps rather than one big bang. It may not be the sexiest of political approaches or meet the expectations of those who exhort us to dream big with our projects and lives but it is an essential mindset for tackling just about every form of change from sorting your back yard to fixing the world’s big problems.
So here’s why you should be an incrementalist.
1. The world is incremental
Whilst big events and big changes often grab the headlines it’s the relentless accumulation of incremental changes that often deliver more and can leave us wondering how everything changed so much whilst we weren’t looking.
For instance the original Apple iPhone might have been a big idea to start with but it has incrementally evolved hugely since then. In particular, the camera on the original wasn’t seen as its strongest point whereas on the current iPhone it’s now the camera of choice for many. The intervening incremental changes, with each updated phone, have made the difference.
Today, technology is being continuously updated – often behind the scenes. Mobile and desktop technology is incrementally changed (you may only be aware if you read the “apps have been updated” notifications)
Car manufactures advertise their latest models as “all new” but the truth is that they’re often just another iteration in the evolution of motor transport.
Indeed Mazda engineers working on the latest version of their legendary Mx5 held to the mantra of “every gram counts” which delivered significant weight savings (and therefore gains in fuel saving and performance). For instance, the new car has one less wheel nut per wheel – hardly a revolution in itself but it does count.
Clearly, not everything can be incrementally achieved – a bridge has to get fully across the gap – so there will always be a need to do big projects but increments should be the norm not the exception.
And keeping up to date with the world around us by incremental change means an incrementalist doesn’t get left behind or find themselves with nasty big catch-up projects.
2. You might have other choice
Whilst not everything can be done incrementally it might be your only choice. For example the big new IT system has been axed due to budget cuts or your personal finances won’t stand up to moving to a bigger home.
So you’re left with accepting what you have and making what incremental changes you can. Being good at getting the most impact and benefit from small resources and small amounts of change therefore becomes a highly useful skill.
If being incremental is all you can do then do it well and don’t bemoan the lack of bigger opportunities.
3. It generates momentum
And even if you’re doing a big change you might need something to do to build momentum in the meantime, particularly if the big project gets delayed.
Big change can often deliver after it’s needed and it also creates a disincentive to do anything in the here and now as the reasoning is it’ll all be wasted when the big change takes place. That kills momentum.
And what happens when the big project turns up? Resources and energy is spent and further progress can come to a halt – particularly if further spending is cut back to pay for overspend.
Whereas the instrumentalist continues on improving and building momentum. Having found a few grams the incrementalist is then looking for a few more.
4. Increments reduce risk
Delay is one of the risks with big projects and so is going over budget. Any scrutiny of large projects (railways, power stations, IT systems etc.) or any TV property show project always throws up these issues. Along with those big change might not delivering everything promised and often not everything works as expected.
It’s always a surprise and very notable when big change is on time, to budget, to specification and of a high quality.
These risks of delay, overspend, poor quality and missed requirements are often complex and hard to manage and if they happen can be quite devastating.
But if things can be done incrementally then the risks are much smaller. Adding a room to your house even if it goes wrong is proportionately less risky than trying rebuild the whole house in one go.
Also if a small change goes wrong there is the possibility of taking a step back and fixing it is easier.
5. Benefits are delivered quickly
Speed of delivery is means benefits arrive quickly. If the long-awaited new thing is still on the horizon after months and years then the here and now can be stagnating or slipping backwards.
If incremental change is the focus, a few pounds (money or weight) saved here, a room refurbished there, then the benefit of the changes arrive before we run out of energy and hope. Indeed the success of quick delivery can energize us to do more.
The incrementalist knows the value of the bird of the hand and the benefit of not gambling on the big change coming off at some dim and distant future point.
6. The world will be different when big eventually turns up
If delivery is going to take a long time then the world will have changed and this can make redundant or even cause to fail what you were planning. If you eventually get the big new house sorted after many years it’ll be a bit disappointing to discover that the kids have grown up and moved out before the space to house them was built.
IT system requirements will change so don’t deliver yesterday’s system tomorrow. Focus instead on what can be done today for the needs that are arising now.
The incrementalist minimises the gap between planning and delivery to ensure that what’s need turns up whilst it’s still needed and relevant.
7. Less fear
Big change can be unsettling and create fear which isn’t a good idea. Fear can lock people into inaction or the uncertainty can just demotivate them.
Big ideas may make for great platform speeches but the reality is that taking small steps can be done without fear and their success will be encouraging and create motivation.
For instance, working with your manager to find small changes you can make to your current job – job crafting – is a lot less scarier and riskier than taking up a brand new job.
8. The mathematical advantage
Small incremental changes have three mathematical foundations that increase their effectiveness
1. Compound. Changes build on existing changes e.g. the pound saved earns interest and creates even more savings. A quick time-saving change to a process will allow more time to make even more time-saving changes.
2. Combination. Changes work together, for instance diet and exercise will combine to generate more weight loss.
3. Amplification. A small change in direction over time will generate a great disparity with where you’ll be in the future. A golfer putting close to can be a degree or so out but over distance the same inaccuracy will get him in the trees. A small incremental change in direction now will have a big impact later by keeping you to a better course.
9. Need not ego as a driven
If you genuinely can’t evolve the system, product or process any further then you know the underlying design needs change and you have a case for big change.
An incremental approach will give cast iron evidence of the need for change. If you’ve improved you’re home – cleared the junk, optimised the storage, added extra rooms in the roof – and still have a real space problem then the bigger house might be the answer. You’ll have also narrowed the gap between where you are now and where you need to be.
Without this then there is a risk that the proposed change is ego driven. Politics, unfortunately, is an area where big change is seen as good, partly because politicians in the limited time they’re in power often to want to drive through change to create a legacy that will be theirs for history.
More often the changes are ineffective or worse and history won’t be that kind to them. It takes a rare politician or business leader to make less glamorous changes that might be the wise and more humble course of action.
10. Nowhere to hide
A long project allows time squandering and procrastination. As stated earlier a big idea can prevent action in the here and now.
Short time-scales are an effective strategy to beat procrastination, a recommendation made by Piers Steel, an authority on procrastination, in his book the Procrastination Equation.
The incrementalist takes action now rather than just believing that they’ll do it tomorrow. Projects become a year late one day at a time (according Fred Brooks who wrote this about software projects 40 years ago!).
You can avoid this by just not doing projects that are long unless you really have to or breaking them down in to manageable increments with short time horizons.
Small teams and short time horizons leave no place to hide or to slack off. It keeps everyone one their toes and stops the potential to gradually drift off course.
Be an incrementalist
Big can be like lottery wins – not a realistic expectation and dreaming about these improbabilities rarely creates progress. Incremental is doing stuff that makes a difference in the here and now.
Do what you can today with what you’ve got.
Be an incrementalist.