Go Big by Thinking Small: The Power of Incrementalism Theory

“Think big.” “Think outside the box.” Or so we’ve been told by generations of business gurus. But what if the gurus are wrong? What if the best way to achieve consistent, sustainable success is by thinking small? In this post, David Altman, Chief Research and Innovation Officer at the Center for Creative Leadership, explains the power of incrementalism theory.

Written by David Altman • 12 Jan 2023

Baseball players

Sometimes the best way to achieve big things is to think small. Just ask Crash Davis, hero of the 1988 movie classic, “Bull Durham.” Here’s Crash:

“You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. Twenty-five hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, OK? There’s six months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week, just one, a gork, a ground ball — a ground ball with eyes! — you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”

What Crash is trying to explain to his somewhat clueless teammate is the power of incrementalism theory – the fact that small changes in processes, technology or resources can result in big changes.

That can be hard to wrap our heads around. Our natural assumption is that big transformational change requires massively different ways of operating. And while it’s true that some humans experience “lightbulb moments,” most such moments flow from the accumulation of prior efforts to understand something or to achieve a goal.

Crash isn’t the only one who sees the logic and beauty of incrementalism. Investment experts understand the outsized effect of small changes in investments that compound over time. Compounding generates high returns because money is earned on the initial investment and on the accumulated returns that have accrued over the duration of the investment.

Or consider the “Butterfly Effect” pioneered by Edward Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist. This idea grew out of Lorenz’s observation that assumptions made about the initial stages of weather – which might seem small and inconsequential – actually created significantly different outcomes in subsequent weather conditions. The idea is that small changes in starting conditions can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. Single acts can serve as catalysts that can then affect systems that then affect system behavior and functioning.

By the way, the concept of “small advantage” also applies to human interactions. Professor Barbara Frederickson, an expert in positive psychology, has written about the micro-moments of connection and argues that for humans to truly flourish, we need to regularly laugh, give and receive hugs and experience other forms of small positive emotions. She wrote: “Micro-moments of positivity resonance build bonds, weave the social fabric that creates our community, promote health and arguably are the supreme emotion.”

Frederickson’s work has been validated by Professor Nicholas Christakis in a study that found that emotions can spread through social networks. He mapped face-to-face interactions among 5,000 people in one town and studied them continuously over 32 years. As one person became happy or sad, it rippled through the network. And the same can happen through digital interactions and on social networks, according to a recent study from Stanford University.

So, what does incrementalism theory have to do with project management? Simply this: large project problems are best broken down into smaller ones with concrete achievable goals. Breaking big, vexing challenges into a set of discrete components leads teams to take modest steps – which, in turn, can increase confidence, reduce fear, clarify actions and, ultimately, enhance the likelihood of success. “Small wins” are a key part of human progress against challenges of all kinds.

Here are three specific ways you and your teams can apply the power of incrementalism to your work:

Keep your eye on the prize. Even though success can be achieved through small changes, it’s important to keep the macro goal – the desired outcome – clearly in focus. Project management professionals need to become advocates for transformational change within their organizations and for project management’s role in bringing transformational change about. That means “owning” the change – taking leadership, along with project sponsors, in defining its purpose and value to the organization.

Break big challenges into smaller incremental steps with achievable goals. To do this, it’s necessary to understand the logic model – the causal chain – that connects your work at the start of the project to the desired outcome. Making meaningful advances (small wins) each step of the way will sustain your team’s motivation to continue moving forward – even in the face of setbacks or recidivism. Making regular, small progress on meaningful work can ultimately result in large change.

Turbocharge your team. Following Barbara Frederickson’s work, create micro-moments of connection so your team can flourish. Frederickson calls these moments “micro-utopias in our day-to-day lives.” They promote creativity, stronger social bonds and durable performance among team members. Indeed, Frederickson says that experiencing positive to negative emotions in an approximately 3 to 1 ratio leads to optimal levels of well-being and resilience.

Crash Davis learned the hard way about incrementalism and the steady application of small advantage. As project leaders, we can be more purposeful in putting the power of incrementalism to work for ourselves and for our organizations. As the late Peter Kaufman, a sociologist at the State University of New York, said: “Most people need consistency more than they need intensity. Intensity makes a good story. Consistency makes progress.”

David Altman headshot

David Altman explains the power of the incrementalism theory and how it is the best way to achieve consistent sustainable growth. Learn more here.

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