The Duality of Incremental Change: Embracing the Good and Evil

August 09, 2023 | 673 Views

The Duality of Incremental Change: Embracing the Good and Evil

Curt Archambault, FMP

Education Strategist, CHART | Partner Consultant, People & Performance Strategies

In a world that celebrates steady progress and constant growth, the concept of "incremental improvement" or "incremental change" has become ingrained in our minds. It offers the allure of stability and predictability, but is there a darker side to this seemingly benign approach?

Recently, during a captivating presentation in Orlando by Dr. James Pogue at CHART’s Hospitality Training Conference, I was challenged to rethink the implications of incremental change and its limitations. Dr. Pogue asserted that some issues require a bolder approach, like kicking down the door, rather than relying solely on slow and methodical incremental improvement. This revelation urged me to explore the duality of incremental change, examining both its merits and its shortcomings. Here, we delve into the good and evil aspects of incremental improvement, uncovering when it can be a valuable tool and when it might hinder true transformation.

The Good of Incremental Change

Sustainable Progress

One of the primary virtues of incremental change is its ability to foster sustainable progress. By making small, manageable adjustments over time, organizations and individuals can create lasting positive transformations. This approach is particularly effective when dealing with complex issues that cannot be solved overnight. Gradual improvement allows for a deeper understanding of the problem and allows time to adapt to new practices smoothly.

Example: A restaurant seeking to improve its environmental impact could start by introducing recycling programs, reducing single-use plastics, and sourcing locally. These incremental changes not only minimize the ecological footprint but also create a lasting culture of sustainability.

Mitigation of Risk

Incremental improvement offers a safety net against sudden upheavals or failures. By testing small changes, organizations can identify potential risks and pitfalls, reducing the chances of a catastrophic outcome. It allows for adjustments to be made before a problem escalates, preserving overall stability.

Example: A hotel chain looking to revamp its guest experience might implement a pilot program in a single location, refining and learning from the process before rolling it out across all properties. This mitigates the risk of a widespread negative impact on customer satisfaction.

Cultivating Commitment

Incremental improvement can inspire commitment and ownership in the process of change. When individuals see their contributions making a real difference, they are more likely to stay engaged and invested in the transformation journey.

Example: An organization aiming to enhance employee well-being could introduce weekly mindfulness sessions, gradually incorporating fitness programs and wellness incentives. Over time, employees may develop healthier habits, leading to a happier and more productive workforce.

The Evil of Incremental Change

Ignoring Urgency

The dark side of incremental change arises when it masks pressing and urgent issues that demand immediate attention. In some situations, a slow and methodical approach can lead to complacency, allowing problems to fester and intensify.

Example: If a hotel faces accusations of discrimination or harassment, incremental improvements in training might not be enough. Addressing these issues requires immediate and decisive action to eradicate toxic behaviors and ensure a safe environment for all.

Hindering Innovation

Incremental improvement can inadvertently inhibit innovation and limit thinking outside the box. When organizations become fixated on small adjustments, they may miss opportunities for groundbreaking advancements.

Example: A restaurant seeking to differentiate itself in a competitive market might focus solely on fine-tuning existing dishes, overlooking the potential of introducing entirely new and innovative menu items.

Escaping Tough Decisions

In some cases, incremental change may serve as an excuse to avoid making tough decisions that could lead to significant transformation. Organizations may cling to the comfort of gradual adjustments, even when radical change is necessary.

Example: An aging hotel struggling to compete in a modern market might resort to incremental renovations rather than addressing the fundamental need for a complete redesign and rebranding.

The concept of incremental improvement presents a dichotomy of both good and evil aspects. While it can undoubtedly yield sustainable progress, mitigate risks, and cultivate commitment, it can also hinder urgent action, stifle innovation, and delay necessary transformative decisions. Embracing the positive aspects of incremental change while recognizing its limitations is key to utilizing it effectively. There are times when incremental improvement serves as the most prudent path, and other times when radical change is the only way to address critical issues.

By thoughtfully discerning the appropriate approach in different situations, we can harness the power of both incremental and transformative change to create a brighter and more dynamic future. Thanks to the fresh ideas presented at the CHART conference for pushing me to think deeper through concepts I have held as truth all these years. 

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Comments (1)

  1. James Pogue:
    Aug 10, 2023 at 12:25 PM

    I am struck with humility that my moment on stage was the catalyst for your deep and thoughtful blog.

    I always walk on stage wanting to hit 'grand slams'. Sometimes you don't know if you hit the ball at all.

    Thank you for letting me know that I made some contact...and for motivating me to get back to work...and work harder still.