People involved with conceiving, directing and coaching change overwhelmingly favor incremental change methods. The support for incrementalism always comes with caveats. Those caveats can be consolidated into three requirements. Organizations with effective incremental change programs are pursuing a vision, have an appreciation for the need to increase tolerance to change, and embrace innovation.
A vision that describes a future state in which the business problem is solved is the most critical requirement for effective incremental change. The vision provides direction to the participants in the effort by providing a goal for the team to progress toward. Each incremental change can be compared to the expressed vision so we can tell whether we are on the correct path. Dominque Bourget, The Process Philosopher, provided the following quote to drive the point home (PS – it sounds very cool in Canadian French, just ask him):
In real estate there are 3 important things: location, location, and location.
In software development there are 3 important things: quality, quality, and QUALITY.
In process improvement there are 3 dangerous things: short view, short view, and short view.”
The second an appreciation for the need to increase tolerance to change. The incremental change means that how work is done will be in a continual state of flux. Early in my career, a mentor suggested that people and organizations really don’t like change. Therefore, it was important to give people the feeling of stability. Over time I have developed a more nuanced understanding of the message about change. People tend not to like changes they perceive to be harmful and embrace changes they believe will be positive for them and/or that they have a hand in shaping. An incremental change approach that involves those affected will foster higher levels of tolerance to change. Dácil Castelo, Productivity & Estimation Area Director at LEDAmc, summarized why she prefers incremental change: “the resistance to change is less with incremental change.”
The third requirement to effective incremental change approach is the need to embrace innovation. All process improvement requires innovation; however, incremental change approaches generally require more innovative approaches in order to preserve momentum. Incremental change is rarely as straightforward as slicing up larger projects into parts. Innovation, by definition, represents a substantial deviation from the thought processes of the past. The power of doing much smaller, related changes is that you receive faster feedback. Faster feedback generates the need for more agility from those guiding or championing a change initiative as they adapt to changes in the environment. To paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” In incremental change approaches contact happens over and over hence the need for innovation.
While I agree with the Process Philosopher that a consistent vision is the most important requirement for effective incremental change, but it is not sufficient. Without an approach to deal with change fatigue, often called change management, almost every change program will fail. Even good change management support won’t suffice without innovation that integrates the feedback generated as people use those changes. All three requirements must be addressed!