incremental change - driving continuous improvement

Small Steps, Big Gains: The Case for Incremental Improvement


In the business world and beyond, our collective fascination with "game-changing" inventions or ideas often overshadows incremental innovation's more reliable and more profound impact. We laud the visionaries and disruptors who single-handedly transform markets with high-risk, high-reward breakthroughs. Yet, history and modern business practice reveal that the sustained commitment to small, daily changes – the incremental approach – underpins success.

In this thought leadership piece, I aim to present an innovative and expert perspective that challenges the ubiquitous narrative of radical, overnight innovation. I will provide compelling reasons, supported by case studies and examples, for why small, measured steps towards improvement are not just pragmatic but superior to the more glamorous “eureka” moments.

Why Incremental Change Matters More


Our pursuit of radical change often stems from a desire for immediate impact, the allure of grand breakthroughs, and the adrenaline rush of disruptive launches. Yet, when we trace the most significant advancements and successes, we find a common thread of steady evolution, not overnight revolutions.

Take, for example, the story of the automotive industry. While Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized mass production, it was his team’s relentless focus on incremental operational efficiencies that truly revolutionized the company.

Or consider the tale of the tortoise and the hare – the ancient fable is a testament to the power of incremental progress. With its steadfast, plodding pace, the tortoise overtakes the hare’s expeditious start.

The Psychology and Culture of Incrementalism


Innovation is as much a psychological endeavour as it is a strategic or technical one. Employees and teams who see how their small, regular contributions feed into the larger organizational goals are more motivated and engaged. This culture of continuous improvement breeds adaptability, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to customer value over time.

One study shows that businesses that foster a growth mindset – an attitude of seeking ways to improve rather than fixed abilities – are more likely to innovate, learn from failures, and outperform their peers. In such organizations, small, incremental change aligns perfectly with the broader culture of constant learning and evolution.

1% Improvement per day


The principle of achieving a 1% improvement daily might seem inconsequential at first glance, yet its cumulative effect is profound. This philosophy is epitomised by the concept of “kaizen”, a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement. Rather than waiting for a grand, sweeping innovation, the focus is on consistently making small, iterative changes over time.

The beauty of this approach is in its simplicity and attainability; every individual or team can seek ways to improve by just 1% every day in their respective roles or tasks. Over time, these minor adjustments accumulate, leading to significant improvements in efficiency, productivity, and overall performance.

In contrast, waiting for the ‘big idea’ can lead to stagnation, as the search for perfection becomes the enemy of progress. The 1% improvement strategy ensures that innovation is a constant, ongoing process rather than a sporadic leap into the unknown.

The concept of 1% improvement per day is based on the principle of continuous, incremental progress. It suggests that if you improve by just 1% in any area of your life or work daily, those small gains will compound over time, leading to significant improvement and growth. 

This idea is essential for several reasons:

1. Achievable Goals

Improving by just 1% is a small, manageable goal that doesn’t seem daunting. It encourages taking action because it feels achievable, which is crucial for building and maintaining momentum.

2. Compound Growth

The power of compounding is often underestimated. A 1% improvement daily compounds to a significant amount over time. Mathematically, if you improve by 1% each day, you are about 37 times better by the end of the year. This exponential growth showcases the massive impact of small, consistent efforts.

3. Promotes Consistency

Committing to 1% improvement requires daily effort and reinforces the habit of consistency. Over time, this consistency becomes part of your routine and character, leading to long-term success and achievement.

4. Builds Confidence

As you see yourself making progress, no matter how small, your confidence grows. This increased self-belief encourages you to take on bigger challenges, setting off a positive cycle of growth and achievement.

5. Flexibility and Adaptability

Focusing on small improvements allows for more flexibility and adaptability. You can adjust your strategies and efforts based on feedback and results, making overcoming obstacles easier and avoiding stagnation.

6. Reduces Fear of Failure

The fear of failure diminishes when the goal is a 1% improvement. Since the focus is on progress rather than perfection, taking risks and trying new things is easier, which is essential for innovation and growth.

7. Enhances Problem-Solving Skills

Seeking ways to improve by 1% encourages you to look for inefficiencies and problems actively. This mindset fosters creativity and enhances your problem-solving skills, making you more effective in various aspects of life.

8. Encourages Mindful Reflection

To know where you can improve, you need to reflect on your actions, decisions, and their outcomes. This promotes mindfulness and self-awareness, which are critical components of personal development.

Turning Vision Into Reality – Practical Strategies for Incremental Change


Achieving sustained progress through small-scale innovation is not serendipitous; it results from a deliberate approach embedded in an organization’s fabric. Implementing a robust, structured process for identifying and acting on incremental opportunities, such as a well-structured problem-solving training programme, can transform your workforce into a powerhouse of creativity and improvement.

Leaders must champion this approach and give their employees the resources, knowledge, and time to contribute. This strategy turns the cliche of “thinking outside the box” on its head—it’s about innovating within the bounds of one’s role, leading to more substantial, albeit less lauded, advancements.

Tech’s Role in Facilitating Incremental Change

In our current landscape, technology is both the impetus for and the result of incremental innovation. Tools and software designed to streamline processes and enhance performance clearly show how technology can facilitate incremental change. Cloud-based solutions, for instance, have allowed for greater collaboration and speed, leading to improvements that, while seemingly minor on their own, have significant cumulative effects.

Technology enables incremental progress and is also the direct beneficiary of this approach. The iterative nature of technology development, with its cycles of testing and refining, embodies the essence of incrementalism.

But don’t be misled – technology is not a panacea. The cultural and psychological aspects that underpin the incremental approach are equally, if not more, critical to its success.

A Call to Action for Today’s Visionaries


For the sceptics who are not yet convinced and the brave souls willing to rethink their strategies, the time is ripe to lead with an incremental vision. Our approach to innovation must evolve, championing the small, cumulative steps that lead to enduring success.

This does not mean forsaking bold ideas or transformational shifts altogether. Instead, it is a call to reframe our thinking, acknowledging that the most effective and sustainable path forward often begins with a series of seemingly ordinary, incremental advancements.

To the business leaders and professionals reading this, I implore you to reconsider your innovation strategies. Encourage your teams not to hunt for the next big thing but commit to improving the small things every day.

In doing so, we refocus our collective energy on what truly matters – not the grand gesture or momentary spotlight but the quiet, steadfast pursuit of improvement that ultimately leads to monumental change. Remember, it’s not about the size of the innovation but the direction it takes us.

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Reagan Pannell

Reagan Pannell

Reagan Pannell is a highly accomplished professional with 15 years of experience in building lean management programs for corporate companies. With his expertise in strategy execution, he has established himself as a trusted advisor for numerous organisations seeking to improve their operational efficiency.

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