The AI here is Adopting Incrementalism. We continue to talk about “moonshot” projects and “complete and total” geopolitical victories. Don’t get me wrong. We need big ideas and bold moves. Some situations require a black-or-white, all-or-nothing outcome. But most advances come in smaller bits and blocks, each building on the last.
Freakonomics Radio rebroadcasted In Praise of Incrementalism the other week. It was first out in 2016 and worth a listen. Ed Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard, had a couple of memorable lines:
“…once we start thinking that there’s a silver bullet, … we lose the fact that we need to be working day by day, over decades, to affect change.”
“The more that you just think that the right answer… will magically fix anything, the less that you actually pay attention to what really matters, which is the nit and grit of everyday decision-making, of everyday governance.”
This prompted me to review a few thoughts of my own on this subject going back to 2011. It started with a general revulsion of mutual exclusivity. We don’t need a divide between big ideas and incremental steps; we need vision and execution, large goals and little objectives, and short-range and long-term views.
Public relations and advertising agencies never receive RFPs for little ideas. Boards of Directors don’t select CEOs for their promises of small improvements. Politicians don’t get elected on a platform of incremental steps. We’re conditioned to expect the big idea, to go big or go home, to swing for a home run, to throw the Hail Mary for a touchdown. But that’s not the way to solve most large and complex problems.
It’s worth remembering our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many in the Continental Congress wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted it remain. There would be no United States of America unless they could agree. So, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787 were compromises. They were steps. We had to wait and fight nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.
This applies beyond our politics and social ills. In the world of medicine, for example, Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D. and Chair of Medical Oncology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center said, "One advance leads to another. Although the advance might be incremental, it's a step beyond. If we are only interested in revolutionary therapies, patients will miss out on the improvements in care that smaller advances offer.”
This holds for the humanities, too. Friedrich Nietzsche said, "Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration... shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects... All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering."
Some may feel incrementalism is akin to settling – a poor compromise. Well, we’ve all heard Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” And legend can teach us, too. When order was collapsing in Camelot, King Arthur (according to T.H. White) said, “Merlyn approved of the Round Table. Evidently, it was a good thing at the time. It must have been a step. Now we must think of making the next one.”
Small strides can sometimes add up to a completed marathon. We should embrace and celebrate the completion of each step along the way.
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