Incremental Improvements Are Perfect for Today’s Uncertain Age

At the April 2021 climate summit, U.S. President Joe Biden announced an ambitious goal: to cut the nation’s emissions by 50-52% by 2030.

Such an aggressive target immediately had the skeptics abuzz. They pointed out that it would entail radical transformation in every aspect of our lives. And they questioned whether it was really reasonable to expect that our society and economy could make the necessary changes.

Yet many organizations that have been striving for sustainability over the years can tell you that it’s possible if you embrace an incremental process.

Every small step counts. Having cleaners use high-pressure jets to flush water drains instead of using chemicals reduces pollution. Installing solar panels and operating at off-peak hours reduces the strain on the grid, helping renewable energy go first.

On their own, these measures won’t be enough to move the needle. But the cumulative effect of small changes can’t be ignored.

Incremental versus radical

In the field of change management, there are two broad categories of change: incremental and radical. And the business world has some high-profile examples of success using either method.

Toyota has become the poster child for incremental change. The company truly embraced the Japanese ethos of ‘kaizen,’ or continuous improvement, that began to emerge in the rebuild after the Second World War. Toyota leverages kaizen to involve every employee, using their insights to identify ways to eliminate waste, refine processes, and develop the best solutions.

The realm of tech offers many examples of radical innovators. But Apple is perhaps the best-known for making game-changing moves. The iPhone shows how Apple isn’t necessarily the first to develop something, but it can be industry-shifting when they release their version of the product, opening up new markets.

Both approaches have their merits and are proven capable of delivering success under the right circumstances. So when do you make a case for one over the other?

A matter of context

man looking at plans

It’s helpful to study what other companies have done to enact change. But you can’t operate based on analogy alone.

Every organization faces unique external and internal pressures. Their priorities will vary based on their maturity, market position, and disruptions or threats on the horizon.

Most of all, though, companies exist within the context of their times. What makes sense in the abstract might be ruled out during a time of recession.

The current age of the pandemic is also one of vast uncertainty. We’ve gone through two major recessions in little more than a decade. We still don’t know when the threat of the pandemic will recede enough for a return to normalcy. And even before Covid-19, the world already faced rising political turmoil and the mounting urgency of climate change.

At the same time, we’ve witnessed explosive developments on the tech frontier that have the potential to reshape society. Widespread high-speed Internet access, universal use of mobile devices, and the influence of social media networks are creating an unpredictable and volatile climate.

These are times of extreme turbulence and unforeseen disruption. And research suggests that under such circumstances, incremental changes will drive results.

Embrace the incremental process

There’s a well-known quote in military strategy: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Companies that set out with a radical transformative goal in mind are bound to experience setbacks during chaotic times. Their margin for error will be small. Quick decisions must be made on a potentially massive scale. Success or failure will often come down to the personal effectiveness of leaders in crisis-like situations.

On the other hand, companies that adopt an incremental approach are less vulnerable. Inevitably, they too will suffer unexpected setbacks, but their iterative loops are smaller, and they receive and process feedback more swiftly.

We’ve already seen how valuable it is to be agile during this pandemic. There’s a chance that radical change can work, but the safer bet right now is to gradually work towards long-term goals.

Continuously improving and innovating on small aspects of your process will also give people the empowerment and autonomy that helps them buy in and take ownership instead of resisting changes.

And don’t overlook the structural changes that can lead to innovative ferment and ultimately help small changes translate into large-scale ones. Increase the vertical and horizontal connections within your organization as well as with external partners. More communication and collaboration during turbulent times will speed up and enrich your responses.

Just as it might be the only way for the US to meet its climate targets, incremental changes could be the best way forward for your organization in this climate.

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