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5 Reasons It Pays to Be an ‘Incrementalist’

It’s not likely that a couch potato can get up and immediately run a race. That’s why the Couch to 5K program works so well. It recommends a gentle introduction to running by starting slow. Alternating between walking and running, the couch potato builds up his strength and ability to go the distance. Whether you’re a beginning runner or a business leader, achieving the unthinkable is within reach. You just have to think small.

By adopting this incrementalist mindset, you move closer to realizing your dreams. Taking smaller, calculated steps toward achieving a larger goal means you don’t fear the uncertain future. By navigating each step individually and evolving with changing industry demands, you can thrive in ambiguity.

And in an age of rapid change, this skill is more valuable than ever.

We’ve all heard the old joke about how to eat an elephant. That’s right, one bite at a time. In periods of change, it isn’t just a planning tool — it’s essential. You might just discover that the elephant looks more like a zebra as you get closer.

Here are five major advantages of adopting this mindset and ideas for incorporating it into your business:

1. Think big, start small.
Don’t look out on the horizon and feel paralyzed by the fact that your goal seems so far away. The most productive way to create momentum toward your big-picture objectives is to break them down into smaller, more realistic daily goals.

For Guwan Jones, corporate director of diversity management at Baylor Health Care System, enhancing the patient experience for diverse populations was a lofty goal. She kept this vision with her every day, and she implemented changes that made a big impact on patients’ ability to continue with treatment plans. She and her team ensured that the system’s translations provided clear explanations for non-academics; they also worked with physicians to consider whether patients had to travel to refill prescriptions and recommended longer prescription periods to increase the likelihood that those patients would continue their medications.

Don’t let big goals overwhelm you; identify smaller progress markers, and focus on those.

2. Step out, despite not seeing the whole path.
Sometimes the market is so unclear that your big-picture goals become obscure. Incorporating incremental thinking allows you to progress in spite of this uncertainty.

Try planning in short bursts and constantly incorporating new information, like changes in your industry and updates on what your competitors are doing, to make smarter decisions. Learn as you go; then, you can pivot your direction and approach accordingly. In times of constant change, the ability to evolve quickly at the planning stage is vital to the continued success of your business.

3. Use knowledge as a game changer.
Successful incrementalists ask questions like “What have we learned that affects our next step?” or “What can we try right now that might move us forward?” Incorporating an adaptive planning process helps you grow because you’re consistently applying new information and learning from your successes or failures. But you can’t be afraid to take some risks.

Take Eric Buhrfeind, for example. When Eric was senior executive director of human resources at Accenture Technology Solutions, he helped secure competitive talent in India by taking an incrementalist approach. He initiated a partnership between MIT and Accenture to offer certification opportunities for employees. This program helped the company recruit and retain talented technical employees. In the beginning, leadership was uncertain, so Eric only asked for a small investment to experiment and test each phase of his idea until it took hold.

4. Team members will step up and contribute.
Incremental planning and action is an effective approach if you can unite your team around a simple and clear shared goal. Employees are much better equipped to picture the steps they need to take in their jobs if those steps are small and achievable. The incremental mindset encourages action, giving teams a much-needed energy boost. When you set company-wide priorities, those involved in only one step or process can better understand their overarching roles.

5. It creates partners for change.
By creating a more agile business structure, you also encourage stakeholders to take part in your ideas. When you communicate short-burst plans to key stakeholders and invite their feedback, you help them understand your objectives and add new expertise to the mix. This will help you make smarter, more informed decisions that take everyone’s needs into account.

Becoming an incrementalist means cultivating your ability to adapt to the changing needs of your business and industry climate. Baby steps might sound tame, but you have to walk before you can run.

What major goals have you accomplished by taking an incrementalist approach?

Patti Johnson

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organizational development consultancy that she founded in 2004. She’s also the author of “MakeWaves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life.” She and her team advise clients, including PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, and Frito-Lay, on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations.

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