A Thali is an incremental meal

Incrementalism–doing small changes in order to achieve a larger effect–comes in many styles and flavors.  The many variations of this approach have titles such experimentation, continuous process improvement, kaizen events, and plan-do-check-act cycles (PDCA).  To paraphrase 20th Century toothpaste commercials, 4 out of 5 process improvement professionals recommend incrementalism.  Agile and Lean are full of examples of branded incremental change models including the Toyota Production System, Scrum and Kanban (when applied to process improvement). We can see the impact of incrementalism on how these frameworks are constructed by observing the individual techniques such as sprints and time boxes, daily stand-ups both in scrum and XP, and retrospectives, to name a few.  Each technique reinforces taking small steps and seeking feedback for re-planning.  If you don’t want to consider frameworks or techniques remember that the agile mantra of inspect and adapt is a statement of incrementalism.   Incrementalism makes changes to how work is done by shifting the focus from the one big project or implementation to taking small steps, gathering feedback and then reacting. This approach to change is not new. Deming popularized the PDCA cycle early in the 20th Century.  Practitioners embrace incrementalism because making many small changes one after another provides feedback fast, which enhances organizational learning and mitigates many of the risks seen in Big Bang models. Four attributes support learning and risk reduction:

  1. Learning – PDCA type or inspect and adapt models all are built on the expectation that when a change is made, the impact will be reviewed and then the feedback will be used to improve how work is done.  Feedback is used as a learning device, where the faster feedback is generated the higher the possibility of learning.
  2. Risk mitigation – Steven Adams, agile consultant (SPaMCAST 412) stated, “Continuous process improvement is a less risky route.  But could be the slower.” Incremental changes typically will not imperil the organization in the way Big Bang or “bet the farm” type changes could.  For example which has more risk: a bank merger or adding hundreds of customers one at a time through a production interface? While this might not be a perfect analogy the larger change that gets feedback only when it’s completed will ALWAYS be riskier. Along with reducing the risk that size generates, smaller increments help ensure that that change programs don’t wander away from the vision that launched them.  Todd Field, senior project manager and Scrum master described it as, “I believe you need to have a Big Bang vision and an incremental improvements plan.“  Techniques like delivery cadence (e.g. Scrum’s sprint cycle) keep changes small and requiring product owner and stakeholder’s acceptance expose risks before they can become issues making incremental changes safer.
  3. Accumulation – Incremental changes building toward an overall goal are often compared to compound interest.  Small changes build on each other until the return is significantly higher than simply making each of the changes in isolation.  Dominique Bourget, the Process Philosopher described this concept as “It is like losing weight… you get more benefit by exercising one hour each day than to exercise 30 hours in a row on the last day of the month.”
  4. Adaptation to the pace of change in external environment – Software development environments are very dynamic.  New methods, techniques and tools are investigated, implemented and discarded as organizations try to get more done within corporate budgetary restraints. We all know the mantra faster, better, and cheaper.  Because of the rate of long term change in the development environment, change programs often lose focus or sponsorship.  Incremental changes are better at reacting to change and adjusting to the level of urgency within an organization.  Kristie Lawrence, IFPUG Past President, suggested that “continuous process improvement allows you to slowly and surely improve. The trick is to manage the scope of what is being improved – changing one thing changes the entire “system” and surface things that you never knew about.”  Implementing small changes provides a feedback loop to continually test the need for further changes.

Incremental changes provide organizations with a tool to minimize the risk of change.  Agile pundits, originally made the point in terms of software development.  The same ideas that make incremental change useful for software development are equally useful for improving the value of continuous improvement all across the business while reducing risk. As a result,  practitioners are predisposed to championing incremental change.