When Incremental Change Provides Little Comfort

Simon Marshall

When Incremental Change Provides Little Comfort

We often joke that change is the one thing that is constant in life.  There is easy access to plenty of research and publications about the relative merits of different approaches, yet we also hear that the majority of change efforts fail to meet the planned results.  How can this be for such an important subject area, given that many business rely so heavily on change processes to deliver them the business improvements they need?

We are also informed about transformation as a change process, where transformation is used to mean complex change, requiring many streams of activities to be planned, managed and connected, or used to describe the process of shifting an entire organisation, i.e. ‘Organisational Transformation’. In this article I’d like to offer a new and simple distinction of these terms which I hope will give access to some different thinking and the possibility of us all fulfilling our dreams and making the biggest possible difference.

Change by definition is a way of shifting from the existing structure or ways of working.  It is a process that is logical, repeatable and hence seems to make a lot of sense to people.  We start with where we are, we look at where we want to be, identify a gap that we wish to close and we plan how to close that gap. In this way change is planned from the present and is about moving forwards from there.  Often this is by changing the content – changing what we do – doing more, doing less, stopping things or doing things differently.  So what we get is a more, better or different version of the what we currently have.  This can be good because we get incremental and predictable results.  After all most business planning is done in this way – for example, if we improve our sales process we could create 10% more revenue than last year and running the operation a little more efficiently would yield 5% more profit.  Hence we are able to form our ‘change’ plan for next year.  There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this process, after all it has allowed significant improvement over the years and this is what I refer to as ‘Moving forwards from the past’ or ‘Incremental Change’

However, where do we go when this particular process of change is insufficient to meet the scale of challenges an organisation is facing, challenges that have never been seen before?  All too often leaders are facing these discontinuous challenges for their organisations, e.g. ‘we need to set up our oil business to thrive in a $50/barrel market’; or, ‘new entrants to our markets have caused us to significantly shift our business model’; or, ‘our funding has been significantly cut and we are expected to deliver the same service with much less money’. 

The type of thinking and the model that will emerge from Incremental Change seems unlikely to offer many solutions to these new and discontinuous challenges. Incremental Change, which is about moving forwards from the present and draws heavily on our experience, i.e. the past, will contain little comfort when we have no relevant experience in our past to draw on.  If we have never faced these type of challenges before, where do we go to look for answers?

Transformational Change may provide some answers.  Transformational Change, whilst informed by the past and honouring experience, is neither governed by it nor starts from that place.  It is characterised by the creation of entirely new possibilities, possibilities that are outside of the present culture, paradigm, processes or way of thinking. 

We call this ‘Moving forwards from the future’

It is sourced not from the present or past but from a leadership commitment to create something completely new. It is about holding that space and shifting the context for everyone, so that people can see more possibility than they previous saw and start to relate to their current circumstances completely differently.  It is sourced from and planned from the future – the very thing that a leader wants to bring into existence. Whilst the past is useful, it is not what drives the thinking or action.  In this way a leader’s stand for something has brought many wonderful things into existence, (that at the time were simply seen as impossible).  We call this process Transformation, and it’s most easily defined by this simple phrase – ‘Moving forward from the future’. 

There have been many great examples of Transformational Change, indeed most of the world’s innovations and breakthroughs have been caused by this thinking, consciously or unconsciously at the time.  One of the best known examples is from 12th September, 1962, when JFK declared at the Rice Stadium in Texas that the US would take a man to the moon and return him safely by the end of that decade. Incremental Change would provide no solutions to this leadership commitment.  Indeed, in the then current paradigm this was simply impossible, and there were many facts to support this view:  the alloys necessary to cope with the intense heat on re-entry did not exist; the necessary computing power had not been invented; the navigation systems did not exist, etc, etc.  However, by shifting the context and getting everyone working inside the context of ‘we are going to put a man on the moon and return him safety by the end of the decade’, these data points, and other problems encountered along the way, shifted from being reasons why that couldn’t be done, into simply challenges that had to be overcome.


Transformational Change does not require you to be a president of the US or to be working on such history making events as the space race.  What it does require is an act of leadership, sourced from your ‘Why’, and an unwavering commitment to bring whatever it is you are seeking into existence – despite the current circumstances.  It is about being authentic, enrolling others in the possibility you see and supporting them as they work with you on it.  It is an ability to learn and take on new thinking as the seemingly impossible challenges get worked on, new solutions get worked out and new ways of being and working get created.  The good news is that all of this can be learned, allowing the world of breakthrough thinking and unprecedented results to open up.

I hope that distinguishing these two fundamental types of change in this way may have triggered some thoughts and may start a different enquiry about creating more of what you are committed to bring into existence, sourced from your Why. If that is the case more information can be found at WhyNotPartnering.com where you can explore the ‘Five Key Principles for Harnessing the Power of Why’ and the 4th generation of the Transformational Change methodology derived from them – ‘Why-Based Organisational Development’.  You may also like a related article we wrote – Right-to-Left Thinking

As a final thought, and hopefully source of inspiration, I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes from George Bernard Shaw:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him.  The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself.  All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Simon is the author of Why-Based Organisational Development and WhyNot’s Leadership Curriculum, and has extensive experience in leadership development, cultural and organisational change and executive coaching.

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