Search This Blog

Friday, March 22, 2013

Timid Incrementalism Will Get You Nowhere

Hi all:

When I came on board at Hyperformix, just over four years ago, I was impressed with many things about the company, most notably its leadership (both technical and managerial).  As part of the Senior Management Team, I had an opportunity to work with an amazing VP of Products and Marketing, Bruce Milne.  I'll never forget the sign he had on his wall--it was a standard sheet of 8 1/2" x 11" paper printed out some time ago as it had seen some weathering.  Upon this paper was the fading ink that had no small impact on my mind and life almost every day since.


In agile software development, we practice iterative as opposed to incremental development.  There is a big distinction as the latter does not allow for dynamic change while the former anticipates and embraces it.  Perhaps a corresponding statement could be "FOCUSED BOLD ITERATION WILL DELIVER DISPROPORTIONATE VALUE" in agile and lean product development.  I'll admit, it's not as catchy and sounds more like management speak.  Give me a few days to wordsmith it :)

I've googled the original phrase and can't see if it had any origin other than Bruce.  I believe it has implications across both business, creative, and personal life and I always keep it close to the front of my mind and helps me to focus on "thinking big".

I hope this is of value to others!



  1. Matt,

    I found something close. “…tiny steps get you nowhere at all. And large organizations frequently contain antibodies that kill even incremental change”

    For leaders, one of the lessons of the past decade is that nothing great ever happens without a great ambition. To gauge the likelihood of success for any change initiative, I've learned to ask, "What's the nature of the leaders' ambition? What is their vision of the organization's future? Does the leadership team have an appetite for change?" I have found that the larger the scale of the change that leaders seek, the more likely it will succeed. However, many leaders, particularly in large organizations, are incrementalists. They believe that the "safe" way to get somewhere is to change a little at a time. Yet too often tiny steps get you nowhere at all. And large organizations frequently contain antibodies that kill eve incremental change.


  2. I disagree with one statement. I think in Agile we practice both iterative and incremental development. Maybe we need to distinguish between process improvement vs development process. We surely do incremental functionality development like building out a feature in slivers.

    Is your argument that incremental slow changes will get swallowed up in the inertia of the existing culture? I totally agree with that. I typically observe successful transformations happen in a stair step fashion. Little incremental changes with a significant shifts that enable future improvement. Without the significant changes most organizations just revert back to what they were doing before.

  3. Thanks for the feedback David.

    You are certainly right that we tend to do both iterative and incremental development, but I try to accentuate the iterative bit as I believe it can be incremental if needed, whereas most of the time incremental has the connotation that the rest of the work MUST be done. In fact, many times I see teams start out with something that "must" be done to completion but when the business or customer sees the value produced in the beginning, they realize that it makes more sense to move on to something else of higher priority. Sticking with the incremental mindset, it can be easy to fall into the waterfall trap.

    To your second paragraph, yes, that was another meaning--I agree with you fully there, especially about reverting back to problematic behavior.