Work Traits

Incremental Change

Incremental change means you prefer making adjustments over time rather than up-front or all at once.
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What is incremental change?

Incremental change means you’ll approach change with a preference for gradual, incremental improvement and development.

Taking something that exists and innovating with it is your preferred method, rather than making sweeping, radical changes or creating entirely new ideas all the time. You’ll like to build on existing assets and see things through a lens of opportunities for refinement.

You’ll easily break down plans into stages and understand their layout over gradual timelines. Career-wise, this also applies: rather than changing roles every few years, you’ll likely prefer a stable role that evolves with increasing responsibility as time goes on.

We call it: Evolution

Your level of energy for incremental and gradual change and improvement over time.

A lot of the changes are so gradual that they don't even qualify as news, or even as interesting: they're so mundane that we just take them for granted. But history shows that it's the mundane changes that are more important than the dramatic 'newsworthy' events.

Robert D. Kaplan

Leaders known for applying incremental change

James Dyson

James Dyson

James Dyson is a British inventor, engineer and entrepreneur. He’s known for inventing the dual cyclone type of vacuum cleaner and other airflow-based appliances, which made his company, Dyson Ltd, internationally successful and worth billions of pounds. 

His process of invention involves taking existing designs and gradually iterating upon them until the right version is found. That takes a lot of patience, and a systematic type of long-term thinking. 

As Dyson explains: “I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution.”

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman is an American activist for children’s rights, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and originator of the well-known phrase “no child left behind”. 

Throughout a long career in advocacy, leadership and legal practise, Edelman achieved countless positive outcomes, driven by a long-term desire to see equality and opportunity for children and minorities in the United States. 

Change is made over the long term with incremental efforts, and her view on incrementalism is simple: “If you don’t like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.”

Marian Wright Edelman
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Dave Brailsford

Dave Brailsford is a British cycling coach and former performance director of British Cycling, the governing body for the sport throughout the UK. He’s best known for popularising the term ‘marginal gains’ when applied to incremental improvements in any discipline. 

Brailsford took an underperforming GB cycling team in 2003 - who had won a single Olympic gold medal in almost 100 years, and not a single Tour de France - and led them to a period of dominance, winning 6 Tours and multiple gold medals in less than a decade. 

He describes the marginal gains philosophy: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

The benefits of preferring incremental change

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Long-term success

This trait is highly correlated with those who grow profitable businesses that last for 10-15 years or more.

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Rather than getting overwhelmed with big ideas, you’ll actually get things done, one step at a time.

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Your track record speaks for itself - success over time is evidence that you’re to be trusted and relied upon by anyone.

The blind spots of preferring incremental change

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Slow to start

You might be reluctant to tackle things that need immediate attention, especially if they relate to anything that could cause a drastic, sudden change in your routine or role.

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Hidden genius

It can sometimes take a while for evidence of your work to show itself, and you might get overshadowed by flashier, dreamier thinkers.

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Prone to tinkering

When you’re in the evolutionary mindset, you might meddle in things that don’t need adjusting, causing more problems than you solve.

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How to be an incremental change architect

1) Ask how you can improve things.

The way you frame your conversations around planning can have a real impact on how your efforts pan out over the long term. Rather than launching ambitious plans with undefined KPIs or fuzzy reasoning, question how you can affect a project right now for future good:

“Can we make some tweaks to this?”

“How can we improve on this?"

This craftsperson mindset will focus you on the small but effective things that you can do now that will have a long term effect.

2) Learn from agile development.

Whether you’re a software developer, product manager, or practitioner of an entirely different line of work, some dabbling in Agile methods could help you develop an evolutionary mindset.

Agile development, alongside ‘lean startup’ methodology, is well-known for iterative, rapid and constant improvement. 

How can you implement some of these processes into your organization? You might not have to overhaul your entire way of doing things, but you could benefit from running your next project like an Agile startup - testing, collaborating and improving as you go.

3) Plan things in stages.

The beginning and ending of a project are usually the most exciting. But it’s the decisions made along the way that often shape how it really turns out. 

As well as just focusing on the start and endpoint of a project, make sure to include milestones along the way during your planning session. Along with these, define how you’re going to measure success at each stage.

If you’re not a visual thinker, maybe get someone with complementary skills to help you map things out so they make more sense in your head. This way, you’ll be able to communicate your vision more easily and track its progress. 

4) Make a record of your wins.

Those incremental changes and evolutionary results shouldn’t just be observed - share the joy! 

Make everyone involved with a project aware that their work is having a real impact across the course of the project. Regular feedback at each milestone will help you maintain momentum and motivation, as well as identify challenges and further opportunities for improvement. 

You’ll probably find that achieving results along the way, instead of just at the conclusion of a project, can be really satisfying, and even addictive.

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