Friday, May 30, 2014

Our "Big Idea" Obsession

Why We Should Embrace Incrementalism 

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 homerun, to throw the Hail Mary for a touchdown.

That’s why President Obama was criticized last month for talking about hitting “singles” and “doubles” in his foreign policy efforts. But he did say, “Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.” And then admitted, “That may not always be sexy. “That may not always attract a lot of attention..."

He was right and his critics were not happy. Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Is Barry Whiffing,” told the President to “stop whining.” Ms. Dowd wrote, “What happened to crushing it and swinging for the fences? Where have you gone, Babe Ruth?” And then, “It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world.” 

My readers, clients and students know I hate this type of mutual exclusivity. (I’ve addressed it before in this blog and in my book, Camelot, Inc.) Of course we need big ideas and bold gestures. But small things can be out-of-the-box and innovative, too. The answer is we need both vision and execution, the large goals and the little objectives, and the short-range and the long-term views. If we can’t always strike that “grand bargain” what are the alternatives?

It’s the same line of reasoning used to block investment in solar or wind energy because it would only be a drop in the bucket compared to our overall energy needs. Or the strengthening of background checks on gun purchases because the effect on violence can’t be fully quantified in advance. Or, it could be taxes and the deficit. The so-called millionaire’s tax can’t get any traction because, the logic goes, it would do so little to cut into our national debt.

But we need to start some place, some time. We’d like to get to the goal line in one play but we can’t. It’s certainly not going to happen with our largest and most complex problems. We’ve all heard Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Well, incrementalism is hard to accept but, in so many cases, equally hard to forswear.

I’ll remind the politicos that our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many of the Founding Fathers wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted it remain. So, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787 were compromises. They were steps. We had to wait nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

As I wrote in another piece, “Compromise and incremental success may not seem satisfying, but it’s the way most things operate and succeed. Baby steps can sometimes add up to a completed marathon. We need to reject the all-or-nothing mentality and reward the smaller but still important measures. We need to learn from the past, not live in it.”

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

P.S. After posting my blog, I came across an article on the Celgene web site, Paving the Way for Cancer Breakthroughs: Small Steps Make a Big Impact on the Lives of Cancer Patients and Our Understanding of the Disease. They warn against "holding out for those large steps" and ignoring the reality of cancer's complexity. Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D. and Chair of Medical Oncology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center commented, "One advance leads to another. Although the advance might be incremental, it's a step beyond." The article concludes, "If we are only interested in revolutionary therapies, patients will miss out on the improvements in care that smaller advances offer. In the end, these advances can help us transform cancer into a chronic, manageable disease."