August 2021 – “Incrementalism: A Big Word for Small Steps”

Incrementalism is all about achieving large goals through small steps, and this is what the iNautilus methodology is all about. It is a process that systematically shifts your focus from an objective that is nearly too big to imagine, to the single item you need to do today. But why is this process of incrementalism so important that I created an entire training program around it? There are several reasons.

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

For the purposes of planning, it is crucial to break the end goal into manageable, bite-sized steps. Not only does this provide an executable path to get from point A to point B, but it allows for delegation of tasks, tracking of progress, lists of actionable items, AND a sense or feeling that the end result really is achievable (rather than just a dream). Method, movement, and morale.

Speaking of “morale”, motivation is another benefit of incrementalism. Several years ago I participated in a bicycle trip that rode about 300 miles in 5 days across the state of Wisconsin. Usually, that amounted to about 30 miles before lunch and 30 miles after lunch. We would track our progress and had maps that showed how many miles to the next scheduled stop. By the time we were about 10 miles from lunch, or the stop at the end of the day, we were pretty tired, hungry, and generally ready for a break (bicycle seats are not very comfortable.) At this point someone would usually announce, “10 miles to go!” For cyclists, a ride of 10 miles is not very long… about 45 minutes to an hour of riding. So the follow-up phrase that typically followed the 10-mile announcement was, “Anybody can do 10 miles,” meaning that 10 (more) miles is an easy feat. With that motivation, we would push on to the next stop where we could rest until after lunch or the next morning. Incrementalism allows us to look ahead at the next “leg” of our voyage and say, “Anyone can do 10 miles.”

Much of business and even a plan to reach some massive corporate vision is about productivity. Incrementalism helps here too. Whether it is the formation of habits or automating repetitive actions, “baby steps” will help get us there. In order to create a new habit (e.g. speaking a positive word to 3 employees on your way to your office each morning), it is helpful to start very small. Start with 1 positive comment each day. (Anyone can say something encouraging to one person every morning). Furthermore, each of these habits will incrementally result in a changed identity.

When it comes to automation, simplifying repetitive processes into a series of little actions will enable you to determine what can/cannot be automated and then develop the resources to automate those items. Again, it’s all about taking the big and making it small.

However, there is a dark side to incrementalism too. This attention to detail needs to be balanced with vision. It is essential that we frequently lift our gaze to the bigger picture and keep the end result in mind. Otherwise, we tend to drift off course. One of the most dangerous areas for negative incrementalism is ethics. When we take actions that we know to be wrong or questionable, and lead off with a thought like, “It’s just this one time,” or “Nobody will notice,” we are setting ourselves up for the proverbial “slippery slope” that leads to an epic (and often public) downfall. Incrementalism has led to many careers ended and companies closed. 

Navigate yourself and your business well. Constantly shift between scanning the horizon, checking the rearview mirror, paying close attention to the instrument panel, and watching the path directly in front of you.