Many of us are in occupations where innovation and creativity are essential. But an unnecessary divide exists between the valuation of sweeping changes and incremental advances. We should not need to choose – this isn’t a case of mutual exclusivity. Of course, we need big ideas and bold moves. Sure, throw the bomb for a touchdown, swing for the fences. But small things, measured steps, can be important and inventive, too. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Upsides to any method or process cannot be guaranteed, of course. It’s important to acknowledge that incrementalism can fail us or derail us, just as big ideas can. One of the most notable (and shameful) examples is the nearly hundred-year span from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (and then another hundred to the 1964 Civil Rights Act). And while Lincoln deserves high praise for his role, we need to remember it took him a couple of decades to fully embrace freedom and citizenship for Black people.
Fortunately, his vast and open mind let in powerful, righteous voices like Frederick Douglass, the freedom seeker who became one of the most important leaders in the fight for abolition and civil rights. It’s notable that Douglass wanted rapid change with the “brave march of a storming party” but came to grips with the “slow progress of a cautious siege.” He and Lincoln understood the political realities. The President knew he had to bring as much of the nation along with them as he could – what he called the “necessary preparation of the public mind.”
Modern political leaders seem to be catching on to incrementalism but for the wrong reasons. While they often campaign on platforms of big ideas, political rivalries, limited resources, and the complexity of most problems squeeze progress into watered-down initiatives. Or, more common these days, an agreement to simply keep the lights on; passing a stop-gap budget is now viewed as a big win. Reaching across the aisle, finding common ground, and coming to a mutually beneficial agreement have become rarities or even signs of weakness.
Politicians are also helping to accelerate our ever-shrinking attention spans. Ideas are being crushed into attention-seeking social media posts. There is a lack of interest, will, or ability to explain complex ideas and to inspire wider acceptance. Ideologic pandering is replacing idea generation. If it can’t be turned into a catch phrase (“America First”) or a chant (“Build the Wall”), complicated, multidimensional ideas have little chance of being turned into a plan or program.
Preparation requires good communication, using messages that combine both rational and emotional elements. There are too many leaders, though, who get it terribly wrong. Deciding to make a change is often done without thought as to how the change will be communicated. They confuse change communication with checking off a couple of boxes. Sending out a memo to employees or a press release to the public overlooks the reality that change communication is a process – a process to be managed.
The details, the message, and the messenger all influence the individual and the organization. It can rally a group around an idea or it can alienate the very people required to generate a successful outcome. John Kotter had it right in his book, “Leading Change.” Condensing and paraphrasing some of his eight incremental steps, leaders need to establish the need for change, gather and empower advocates, articulate a vision for what awaits, communicate up and down the organization, define the roles people will have and the processes needed for future success, and demonstrate wins along the way.
It’s great to have big ideas, it's OK to be impatient, we should embrace change. At the same time, we need to be thinking strategically and develop a plan about what needs to be accomplished, over what timeline, and with what resources. We need to define the milestones and recognize each accomplishment as we maintain a focus on the ultimate goal. Civil rights activist Alice Wine had wise words: “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
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