Is Incremental Change Good Enough?

I was at an event last week that left me uplifted and energized with undercurrents of irritation and discomfort.  It’s the mix I look for when I attend an event because it signals that I’m learning outside my comfort zone.

I attended an SDX (Systemic Design Exchange) event in which panelists candidly shared their Epic Tries: Innovation Stories from the Field for the first part of the afternoon.  In the latter half of the afternoon, SDXers broke into smaller groups to discuss a question or problem posed by a panelist   I like this format because it gives participants an opportunity to contribute their ideas and expertise to the panelists.  Near the end of the afternoon, we became one large group again to debrief the conversations and what had been accomplished.

However there was one phrase that kept bubbling to the surface that both resonated with me and frustrated me.   It was the idea of incremental change.

Incremental change, as I am taken to understand, is created by seizing opportunities to make micro-changes that eventually coalesce into more substantial change over time. On the surface it makes sense.   It’s easier to move a few smaller boxes that one huge box.  Incremental change is actually a very smart strategy and its very difficult to argue its logic.

Unfortunately, my experience working in government has taught me that the lasting impact of incremental change is undermined by three corrosive forces; lack of coordination, indecision, and apathy.

I have witnessed situations in which one team will make an incremental change, be high-fiving each other while another team is unintentionally countering their change with one of their. This happens all too often in government.  Sometimes I hear the question; didn’t we fix this problem last year?  From year to year we haven’t really ‘moved the needle’ by any lasting measure.

I know a few middle managers in government that really want to do things better but are fossilized into inaction because of indecision above them.  I’m sure some of these indecision-makers would appreciate the freedom to try new things but they have to be mindful of making a ‘career limiting move’.  In the meantime, the idea being considered becomes stale and losses its relevance.  An opportunity to make an incremental change passes and people move on.

At this point you might be tempted to say “that’s the way it is in government”.  When I first joined government I was astonished at how casually people accepted this as a reason for not doing better.  This apathy is the most lethal killer of any kind of change and signals someone that believes doing better is not possible.  Worse, it signals a person who believes doing better is no longer their responsibility.  The system is the people who run it.

My apologies.  I see this post has taken a turn towards hopelessness.  But I think hopelessness is how many people in government feel as they tirelessly and continuously push an agenda of change from their cubicles.   I’ve seen it in the faces of people around meeting tables who know they will return to dealing with the mindless, soul-crushing minutiae that matters urgently today but is forgotten tomorrow.

But not all is lost.  The people I meet at SDX refurbish hope that change is possible.   I agree that change is hard.  But it is also inevitable.  The greatest potential for meaningful incremental change comes from intentional coordination and integration of our efforts.  This leaves me with three questions to which there may not be answers. Yet.

  1. What can I do to coordinate people and their incremental changes?
  2. How can I access and support indecision-makers so they feel comfortable transitioning to decision-makers?
  3. How do I influence others to shift from the ‘way it’s always been’ to the ‘way it can be’?