Life is comprised of many small changes punctuated from time to time with rapid broad-scale change, usually precipitated by crisis. Incremental change is mankind’s natural preference when it is sufficient to relieve the discomfort of the moment and avoid major adjustments in the status quo. However, when incremental change is inadequate to address a problem, society will opt for a major system overhaul. That is to say, from time to time the pressure for change becomes so great that significant transformational change is required resulting in the cataclysmic transformational event, be it reformation or revolution. Still, incremental change is the normative process and cataclysmic change is the exception.
So, incrementalism happens. It happens naturally as a matter of course, even in the absence of any purpose or direction beyond that of relieving some minor discomfort. But, must it only be accepted as the norm or can it actually be used intentionally as a tool to bring about significant transformation by the accumulated effects of many small measures over an extended period of time? It is not only possible to use incrementalism as a tool but that it is indeed the wisest and most prudent approach in the majority of circumstances. Later I will make the argument for the appropriate use of the opportunity for cataclysmic change.Incrementalism can take two forms, directional and natural non-directional. Those who condemn the idea of embracing incrementalism as a tool are concerned that incremental solutions are band-aides and not really solutions at all, and that to embrace incrementalism is tantamount to conceding to the entropy that will eventually drag any society to the dung heap of history. Their concerns are not without merit. No doubt this is the outcome of directionless closed system incrementalism.
One danger of embracing incrementalism as a tool and a tactic is that when changes are small and seldom, it is easy to be lulled to sleep, to lose sight of any goal and fail to press forward to real and needed change. To say this another way, there are two factors that make natural incrementalism a failure: 1) the low objective of simply relieving the discomfort of any given situation fails to insure that the change produced is positive and productive; and 2) the law of entropy says that any system will tend toward discontinuity and loss of cohesion unless there is an infusion of energy from outside the system.
However, an incremental approach to change can be an effective tool for implementing change, and I believe is essential to any successful venture. As Moses said to Israel,
“The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you.” (Deuteronomy 7:22).
This wise instruction and sober warning to Israel from their prophet is applicable to each and all of us, to any society, to any institution, any army, any business, to any movement. In our zeal to fulfill a given vision or objective, we must be careful to not out drive our ability to maintain ground we have taken. The question is not only, can my platoon take the next hill, but can we keep it once we possess it? Not only, can we make the sale? But, can we reliably and continually supply the goods to the customer and keep them coming back for more? It is those who best navigate this realm between over caution and over aggression who bring lasting change to our societal institutions and to the culture as a whole.
There are several reasons why incrementalism should be our first approach in responding to problems and in moving any legitimate agenda forward. Why? Because 1) it allows for the least consumption of vital resources; 2) it helps avoid stagnation by allowing some movement when the cultural climate will not permit greater sustainable change; 3) it gives the opportunity for the ideas that undergird our philosophy to be promoted to others without presenting an overwhelming threat to their current position; 4) it allows for continual re-evaluation of our position, capabilities, and methodologies; and 5) it minimizes the consequences of misguided actions.
There is another key advantage of incrementalism. It allows the societal mindset time to process and absorb the philosophy that drives the agenda and to come to embrace the change in a sustainable way. This causes the contrary forces to lose their influence and allows the people to become unified, capable of holding the new territory and establishing it as a base of operation for maintenance and future advancement.
(Next time, we will examine the nature of cultural mind shifts as a predominantly incremental process and consider how this prepares a society for the occasional constructive systemic overhaul.)
To read the entire series on Incrementalism click on titles below:
- Article 1 – Incrementalism as an Effective Instrument of Social and Political Change
- Article 2 – Incrementalism as a Tactic – Was Moses an Incrementalist?
- Article 3 – Core Social Consensus Essential for Sustainable Systemic Transformation
- Article 4 – Incremental Dialectical Process as Progress
- Article 5 – Maintaining Vision – A Necessity for Successful Transformation